Sarah's Key starts out by oscillating chapters between Julia Jarmond in France 2002 and a nameless young girl in France 1942. Julia is an American who has been living in France for the past 25 years. She works for an English-language publication and has been assigned to write an article about the anniversary of the great roundup at the Velodrome d'Hiver (Vel' d'Hiv'). The nameless young girl is the daughter of Jews living in France, and her family is arrested during Vel' d'Hiv'. The reader knows the two stories must converge. And converge they do when it is revealed that the young girl is Sarah Starzynksi, and she escaped this horror. Today we might say she was "one of the lucky ones" because she escaped, but this novel illustrates how very unlucky she was to escape. No Jewish people were "lucky" during this horrible nightmare that blemishes our world's history.
I received a copy of this book from St. Martin's Griffin through Goodreads FirstReads program. It is set to be released in October of this year. Stories of the human experience during World War II always intrigue me. I think it is because I, to this day, cannot comprehend the horror of this time period. I feel the need to TRY to understand it better, try to understand how so many people could inflict pain and suffering of this magnitude on other people. I also need to experience all the people who did something - anything - to try to combat this heinous crime.
Sarah's Key, while fictional, helped me to experience a little more of this. Sarah's Key illustrates some of those people who tried to help, and the suffering they experienced as well. de Rosnay does an excellent job of illustrating the psychological effects of the Vel' d'Hiv' on a wide variety of people: Sarah and the other Jews rounded up, the French people surrounding the camp, the descendants of survivors, and people like me...people who have simply learned about it and did not experience it first hand.
de Rosnay alludes to the fact that the French police were not addressed in the novel; this element might have made the book a bit stronger, but it also might have detracted from what was already there. I don't know. And maybe it would have depended on how it was approached. But they were a group I found myself wondering about, while reading. Maybe that perspective would make for another interesting book by itself; who knows?
While there are elements of the plot that are predictable, there are other elements I didn't see coming at all. I found myself completely caught up in the life of these two women, and I desperately wanted to know what would happen with each. I, at times, became very irritated with Julia. Her husband was repulsive almost from page one and she seemed to harp on his "physical appeal." I found it hard to understand why such an independent, intelligent woman would tolerate his flagrant egocentricity. But, at the same time, I was taken with her dedication to finding out what happened to Sarah Starzynksi. Those two parts of her character didn't seem to blend for me.
I absolutely adored the character of Sarah. About midway through the novel de Rosnay stops oscillating the stories and the reader learns about Sarah through Julia's investigations, leaving Sarah's fate a mystery until the pieces are put together. Sarah's story is heart-wrenching. When she escapes from the camp with a young girl named Rachel, they take their stars off their shirts and dig a hole to leave them in. Rachel says, "'I'm burying the stars. They're dead. In their grave. Forever and ever.'" That single line resonates so much meaning for Sarah's character. It's one you really have to go back to after finishing the entire book to grasp the enormity of it.
An element that was especially startling for me was the fact that so many people wanted to still ignore the fact that Vel' d'Hiv' took place. Their attitude that it was better not to rehash the past was mortifying. I'm sure that it is easier and safer and more comfortable for some to cut themselves off and pretend this did not occur. But as this book illustrates, it's long past time for those people to be comfortable at the expense of the people who were so terribly scarred by this era.
I'm thankful for books like Sarah's Key. It is fiction, but Vel' d'Hiv' was not. And prior to reading this book, I did not know about this horror in France. I am glad I will not remain ignorant to it.