Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
A friend of mine recently observed: “You’re so funny when you don’t like stuff!” She’d just listened to me lambast the Lakers as they lost Game Two to the Mavs, and I was merciless in my assessment of their lazy passing and sloppy ball-handling (IMO, the Mavs didn’t win the series as much as the Lakers lost it). But the first thing she ever heard me lay into was this book.
We read Sarah’s Key for our book club. I was excited to read it; a Holocaust story? That’s like a free throw. If you miss that shot while standing still with no one defending you, then you have no one to blame with yourself.
Well, Tatiana de Rosnay’s shooting percentage must be awful because Sarah’s Key, a book that should’ve been an emotional slam dunk with de Rosnay hanging off the rim, mad-dogging the shattered reader she just posterized, was instead an airball that sailed into the crowd and beaned the reader right in the face.
Kobe Bryant posterizing Dwight Howard back in 2009. Those were happier times.
There are two main storylines in the plot. The first one is about Sarah, a young Jewish girl living in Paris during the German occupation. The second concerns Julia, an American expat journalist who discovers Sarah’s story. I like to call them “Vaguely Interesting” and “Rage-Inducingly Idiotic,” respectively.
Each chapter alternates between telling Sarah’s and Julia’s stories. Once again, the Sarah part of the book was tolerable; if the book had been entirely about Sarah, it might have merited as high as three stars out of five. But, no: about a third of the way into the book, the author inexplicably decides that Sarah’s story is finished, and the latter part of the book is all about Julia.
Just so you can get a flavor of Sarah’s story, let me sum it up for you. She and her family are rounded up by French police in the infamous Vel d’Hiv Roundup, in which thousands of Parisian Jews were held in the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor bicycling track, and detained for several days without food or water. Before Sarah and her parents are hustled out the door, her brother Michel refuses to leave, so Sarah locks him into a hidden cabinet behind a wall panel. Because she doesn’t believe they’ll be there for long, she promises him that she’ll come back and let him out when it’s all over.
Of course, it’s not over for a long time. Sarah is separated from her parents, but she is able to sneak out of the Vel d’Hiv with another little girl. They wander around for a while until they’re taken in by an elderly French couple living outside Paris. But, all the while, Sarah remains determined to keep her promise to her brother. I’ll give you three guesses how that turns out, since it’s a Holocaust book and Sarah’s story ends in the first third of the book.
Ehay iesday inyay ethay abinetcay ecausebay eshay ouldn’tcay etlay imhay outyay inyay imetay.
That part of the book was decent.
It was the Julia part of the story that I really couldn’t stand. Julia’s been living in Paris for many years, and she’s married to a Frenchman and they have an eleven-year-old daughter. Their marriage is rather rocky, and the most emotionally mature person in the family is, of course, the eleven-year-old daughter. I mean, come on.
But what’s really infuriating about Julia is that she is one of the stupidest characters ever committed to the printed page. She supposedly speaks perfect, accentless French, and complains that her in-laws still refer to her as “l’Americaine.” What do you expect them to call you? The Native Frenchwoman? Because you’re not, you know.
When she finds out about the Vel d’Hiv Roundup, she excitedly chatters to her husband (with whom she already has a rather strained relationship) about how she can’t believe how the French covered this up and how she can’t understand why no one wants to talk about it with her. Um, maybe it’s because you’re an American writing a a news story about this shameful event in French history and it’s going to make them look bad. And, also, maybe it’s because your husband wasn’t even born when it happened and he really doesn’t know much about it.
Julia is the stereotype of the obnoxious American, always asking inappropriately probing questions and kicking in figurative doors without knocking first and then demanding that the occupants explain why they’re so upset with her as she tap-dances on their battered door.
And, somehow, she manages to make Sarah’s story all about her. Sarah’s story deeply moves her, and she demands that everyone else care about it just as much as she does just because she does. Look, I love the Lakers, but if you don’t, then we can talk about something else. I’m not going to force you to love what I love and then judge you for not loving it as much as I do (especially considering what a crapper their postseason was). But Julia insists that everyone around her obsess about what she’s obsessed with and then complains when people find that off-putting.
Tatiana de Rosnay is French, and she says that she has a lot of expat friends. Well, her friends must be serious bores if this is de Rosnay’s depiction of American women. Don’t do us any favors, Mme. de Rosnay. I may find the need to write a book about snooty French authors who think they can understand what it’s like to be an American expat in France who thinks that she knows what it’s like to be French. If I were friends with Mme. de Rosnay and I read this book, we would have a serious falling out in full “Jersey Shore” fashion with fingers in faces and shoving in high heels after I read this book.
Hint: I'm the dog.
Only slightly less annoying is de Rosnay’s portrayal of Julia’s eleven-year-old daughter, Zoë. Zoë is always there to comfort her mother and to reason with her and encourage her. She’s always calm. When she finds out that her parents are (SPOILER!!) ettinggay ivorcedday, she responds with understanding and reassures her mother that it’s the right thing to do. No eleven-year-old I know, no matter how precocious, would respond this calmly to this kind of news. Sounds to me like she’s a sociopath. I’m guessing that, when she’s not comforting her mother, she’s burning holes into her dolls’ eyes and torturing kittens.
Ultimately, I disliked the book because it was supposed to be a Holocaust story, and it wound up being about a whiny, self-absorbed American instead. It’s been a long time since I was this angry at a main character.
By the way, de Rosnay seems especially fond of a very thin trope in which she doesn’t tells us the names of people until it’s “naturally” revealed by others. We don’t even see Sarah called “Sarah” directly until the third or fourth chapter about her. “The girl” does this and “the girl” does that, and her identity is supposed to be a mystery, but it’s like, come on, the book is called Sarah’s Key. Obviously, her name is Sarah, so can we stop pretending we don’t know who she is and move on, already? I don’t know if de Rosnay was trying to make the book more mysterious or what, but, either way: FAIL.
Writing a compelling Holocaust story: FAIL.
Moving the plot along effortlessly: FAIL.
Subtly revealing various facts about the characters: FAIL.
Writing a sympathetic main character: EPIC FAIL.
Book as a whole: You tell me what you think I’m going to say. If you’re a fan of de Rosnay’s you’re probably going to string me along without telling me what you really think before answering a completely different question that I didn’t even ask.
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