Thursday, March 13, 2014

Family Secret, National Embarrassment

Title: Sarah's Key
Author:Tatiana de Rosnay
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; 1st edition (September 30, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0312370849
I'm a sucker for historical fiction, and I'll blame/commend my dad for that. He was always interested in history and taught me to love it too. Like many other adolescents, I had my phase of reading through all the Holocaust books available for young adults - the ubiquitous Anne Frank, plus some fiction titles. I moved on to non-fiction adult titles, all in a quest to understand, like many others have asked, "How could it happen?"
Not long ago, I read and posted on "The Book Thief" which was clearly a fictional creation as the narrator was Death himself. In Sarah's Key, the narrator is a modern woman, Julia, trying to investigate a family secret and a French national embarrassment. Wrapped around the mystery is her disintegrating marriage to a French man and her re-emergence as an independent woman.  Spoiler alert - do not read if you don't want to know the plot.  There are some interesting surprises!

Julia, an American-born woman, inherits from her French husband's grandmother, an apartment in Paris. At the same time, as a journalist, Julia is assigned to report on a commemoration of the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup.  As the Nazis occupied France, they coerced the local population and police into rounding up and deporting the Jewish adult population to the concentration camps.  However, the children were left behind in horrible conditions.  It is a part of French history that many wish to forget, as Julia is reminded by several people.
Flashing back in time, Sarah locks her brother into a hiding place in their apartment to keep him from the round up.  Not knowing the true intention, Sarah assumes that she will be back for him.  However, she and her parents are confined to an arena, and then separated. Her parents are shipped off and she is confined with the other children.  She convinces another child to escape and they are taken in by a sympathetic older farming couple.   However, her friend, being ill is both seen by and betrayed by a doctor, leaving Sarah with the older couple, desperate to return to Paris and free her brother.  Disguising her as a relative, the couple takes Sarah to the apartment, to find the decomposed body of her brother in the locked cupboard.  A new family occupies the apartment - Julia's husband's family.

Through Julia's investigation, she follows the trail of Sarah from Paris, to the US, and then to Italy.  Her husband's family both dread and are relieved to have the family secret in the open.  As Julia gets deeper into the story of Sarah, her marriage begins to dissolve.  But, Julia re-discovers her own personality and passions.

The constant shift of time and narrator at times was distracting.  Just as I began to visualize the story, it shifted to a new place and time.  At first I found Julia a bit whiny, but over time I began to understand how she had become who she was.  However,  my greatest sympathies, of course, were with Sarah, who had survived the Holocaust, but could never get past the guilt of that survival. 

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