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Sarah’s Key –Tatiana de Rosnay

January 12th, 2010


Read: January 1 – 6, 2010
Overview: So-so
Read again? No thanks.

Intertwining the stories of two characters, one living in Paris during the Nazi occupation, and the other going through a mid-life crisis in modern-day Paris, de Rosnay’s novel is full of potential that, for me at least, was never realized.

Spoiler Alert: If you’re going to read this, don’t read any futher! I tell all!

Paralleling the lives of 45 year old American expat (and writer) Julia with Sarah, a 10 year old arrested and deported during the 1942 Vel d’Hiv roundups seems unbalanced. In one chapter, Julia struggles with a decision to abort her long-desired baby or lose her jerk-wad of a husband. In the next, Sarah survives the knowledge that she killed her little brother by locking him in a cabinet for “safety” and fights to escape the Nazis. Hmm. Gee. Yeah. That’s a comparison alright.

de Rosnay highlighted that parallel by switching from Julia’s story to Sarah’s story nearly every chapter… for the first half of the book, any way. With a hundred or more pages left, suddenly, Sarah’s voice disappears. I could understand this if it was a symbol of her life in some way. Perhaps she had been captured by the Nazis again? Perhaps she had gotten sick? Moved away? Died? Closed the door on her struggle to accept the death of her family? We find out the entire trajectory of Sarah’s life at the end of the book, after Julia meets Sarah’s surviving relatives in the United States, but I could see no real reason for the jarring and unsatisfying narrative shift.

On top of the concept, the utter predictability of Julia’s plot line was compelling in a train-wreck sort of way. I kept reading strictly to see if I was right in guessing every “twist”. For example, Julie spends several chapters casually mentioning her family’s upcoming move into an old apartment in central Paris. What a coincidence! Sarah’s apartment is in the very same neighborhood! Naturally, when Julia began to research the Vel d’Hiv, it was no surprise that she found Sarah’s family had been the original owners of her swanky new flat. And then, when Julia got divorced, common sense would guess she’d fall in love with Sarah’s son. At one point, I mentioned one of my guesses to Sandra, saying I’d have to throw the book across the room if Julia named her new daughter “Sarah”. It’s probably no surprise that I ended up tossing the book, nearly missing two dogs and a Swedish vase in the process.

Although I enjoyed the historical background to the novel, I consistently wished that the story had been honed and delivered by a more talented storyteller. The life that de Rosnay created for Sarah was full of tragedy and intrigue and excitement. Julia, as a character, was harder to enjoy. She had nothing positive to say about her brute of a husband from the beginning of the story. So, how are we to empathize with her debate whether to choose him or her unborn child? Worse, the character of Julia seemed to repeat herself a lot, to hit the reader over the head with her situation or thoughts. After spending several chapters thinking about being pregnant, talking about her previous horrible miscarriages, and wondering whether or not to abort or get a divorce, she actually states, “I ordered apple juice instead of wine because I was pregnant.” Did she really need to point that out again?

I found myself wishing the story was truly about Sarah alone, and once Sarah’s voice disappeared from the narrative, I raced through the remaining chapters in hopes that the story would improve or be redeemed by a unique and unpredictable turn.

It may sound like I’m being overly harsh for my first book review here, and the first of 2010. Maybe I am. I wanted to like this novel, and that’s the heart of the problem. We’re always more critical when the room for improvement is obvious, and in this case, I felt left down that the high potential for a groundbreaking and eye opening work was never achieved. I was too distracted by the imbalance in language and voice, and too discontent with the predictable plot.

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3 Responses to “Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay”

  1. Annegret Says:

    It is very interesting that you write about books that you read. It did not yet know it. Because of your comments on the book I became interested in the book and I will – despite your remarks – read it as soon as possible.


  2. Rebecca Says:

    I think it is perfectly acceptable for you to post exactly what you think about the books you read. The whole idea is that it is your own opinion and if you didn’t enjoy it the way you wanted to then you should say so. Anyone who really wants to read it will read it anyways and they can form their own opinion about whether they enjoyed it or not. Reading is a very personal thing. As for the author…well, an author needs to develop a thick skin because some people will love their books and some will not. That’s the reality of books.
    Keep the reviews coming both positive and negative!
    P.S: My cardigan from design class is still patiently waiting for me to finish a baby blanket but I will update you on progress when there is any : )

  3. Julie Says:

    And also – apple juice instead of wine? That’s just wrong.

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