Tatiana de Rosnay
St. Martin’s Griffin
$13.95, paperback, 320 pages
The first half of Sarah’s Key hints at a captivating story: the Vel d’Hiv roundup in Paris on July 16, 1942. The roundup is one of the forgotten tragedies of history. More than 12,000 Jews (over half of whom were women and children) were arrested by French policeman and taken to the Velodrome d’hiver, an indoor cycle track. Guarded by their countrymen, men were separated from their families and sent to internment camps and then on to concentration camps. Then the women were separated from their children. Almost all ended up at camps; few of the children survived.
Conditions in the velodrome were deplorable; the few working toilets quickly failed, and food and water were limited. The glass roof of the building helped to heat the crowded conditions on the track during the days the Jews were held.
Tatiana de Rosnay, herself a French citizen, uses the Vel d’Hiv as the background for the two stories she tells in Sarah’s Key. The first follows Sarah, a young Jewish girl taken to the Vel d’Hiv. During the arrest, she hides her brother in a secret cupboard in their apartment. She locks him in, takes the key and promises him she’ll be back soon. The second story follows Julia, a contemporary middle-aged American ex pat assigned to write about the Vel d’Hiv for a Paris magazine and her search for what happened to Sarah.
For the first half of the novel, de Rosnay alternates between the two characters; chapter breaks and a different font indicate the time shift. As Julia discovers more about the roundup, the reader learns more about Sarah. Unfortunately, the promise of Sarah’s story doesn’t come to fruition. de Rosnay captures a child’s voice, but, in doing so, she leaves out a full discussion of the turbulent emotions of the character and what 1942 Paris is experiencing. Sarah wishes her parents had told her what was happening since 1939; the reader, too, wishes for more insight into the events. The first-person point-of-view isn’t necessary here for the reader to empathize with Sarah and her family because the events are so tragic. A third-person point-of-view may have served the novel better.
Julia’s story is interesting in its own right, but boils down to little more than chick lit set against an historic backdrop. Her husband, Bertrand, cheats on her and, as portrayed in the book, offers no reason beyond their daughter for Julia to stay with him. de Rosnay describes Bertrand as a charismatic, sensual Frenchman, but the reader only sees his cruel side. At the end of the novel, Bertrand’s explanation of his actions seem dropped in from some other novel because the reader never saw even a hint of what was happening. Also infuriating is Julia’s editor’s criticism of her final article. He wishes she had contacted the French police involved in the roundup and detailed more of the 1942 and contemporary French reaction to the treatment of the Jews. His admonition is a reminder not only of what isn’t in Julia’s article, but also what isn’t in de Rosnay’s novel.
By the time Julia discovers what happened to Sarah, de Rosnay drops the alternating plots and focuses on Julia’s reactions. The events that follow are predictable, down to the final scene in a New York café. Focusing more on Sarah than on Julia would have led to a stronger novel that resonated with the reader. Instead de Rosnay produces an easy read that may spur some readers to do their own research into the events of July 1942.