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Sarah’s Key

October 22nd, 2010

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A New York Times bestseller. Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life. Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.


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Fiction Books A New York Times bestseller. Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life. Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.
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  1. Aleksandra Nita-Lazar
    October 23rd, 2010 at 10:37 | #1

    Rating

    On 16th July, 1942, thousands of Jews from Paris, most of them women and children, were removed from their homes and gathered at the Velodrome d’Hiver (or Vel d’Hiv, as it is referred to) on the orders of the Vichy government in collaboration with the Nazi invaders. There they stayed, crowded and humiliated, for many days, before being transported to French camps, and then to the final destination – Auschwitz. The vast majority of them perished there and the shameful events became a public secret in France.

    The Vel d’Hiv roundup is the theme of Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel “Sarah’s Key” which begins with early morning knocking to the door of the family apartment on Rue de Saintonge. The little girl and her mother are taken by the police; the father cannot resist the pressure and joins them from his hiding place; but the little boy decides to hide in a cupboard and his sister locks him in, thinking he would be safe until they came back…

    In 2002, Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, is given an assignment to write about Vel d’Hiv roundup for its sixtieth anniversary. At the same time, her husband Bertrand, an architect, plans the renovation of his grandmother’s apartment so that the family can move in.

    Julia becomes more and more interested in the events of a roundup, and when she discovers how the fate of the little Jewish girl is mixed with the history f her husband’s family, her life gets deeply affected.

    The novel starts as two parallel stories, one in 1942, one in 2002, and these stories intertwine, at the end joining in Julia’s present time. The secrets get revealed and the truth emerges. Unfortunately, the author’s talent for building suspense is used in a strange way – the reader knows more than Julia right from the start, so that her revelations are unmoving. The little girl’s name is known from the title, so why hide it for so long? The whole story is predictable and I think the book would have been much better if the author concentrated only on Sarah, her feelings and her life (like, say, “The Pianist” , an astonishing memoir of Wladyslaw Szpilman), without introducing Julia and her banal story (oddly reminiscent of the film “Le Divorce”). The main value of this novel is the tragic event it is built around – the Vel d’Hiv roundup, and I am happy it pointed my attention to it and allowed me to think about the situation of the Jews in France during WWII in comparison to the one in Poland, which I am more familiar with.

    Otherwise, this novel is not very special – a short read for one evening, serving as a mere introduction to the wide, weighty subject.

  2. Reader
    October 24th, 2010 at 09:15 | #2

    Rating

    This would have been a great book to have borrowed from the library. I’m a little disappointed that I paid money for it. The story of Sarah is gripping, well told, and was news to me. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to find out what happened to little Sarah and her little brother.

    **SPOILER ALERT**

    Once this mystery was solved, however, and the secondary mystery of the Tezac/Sarah tie, then the rest of the novel was just plain silly.

    For the last 24 pages, we knew what Juala named her daughter. But we had to drag through 24 pages of stilted writing, with the author using every stupid device available to NOT say the name of her daughter. Worse even than the first part of the book where she worked so hard at not telling us “the girl’s” name. Too affected for me. By the time she “revealed” the names, we already knew them. Does she think we’re that stupid? I guess hundreds of people thought this was an ok way to develop the climax.

    This is a book I ran through, and when finished, wanted to throw across the room. It could have been so great. I have to agree with other reviewers that said that the story of Sarah was beautifully done, and far too short. The story of Julia, which the author seems to feel is more important, is weak and poorly done.

  3. B.E. Reader
    October 25th, 2010 at 15:22 | #3

    Rating

    I’m torn between giving this a 2 or a 3. I don’t usually rate books below a 3. There are a lot of fiction books out there that center around the atrocities of WWII. And I believe that if you are going to tackle a small area in this genre, its needs to be good. I was at least glad that it broached and area that we don’t see much and that was occupied France. This book unfortunately fell short, very short. I read this book for a book club and I found it to be mostly unbelievable in many areas. There were also too many coincidences and things happening ‘just because’. Sarah’s story, had it been developed by the writer better could have been amazing. But instead we lose Sarah’s voice to Julia who was completely unlikable and I almost felt she wasn’t believable if she were a real person. Even the daughter Zoe to me seemed totally unbelievable. The writing to me seemed amateur. I can complain about lack of real character development but then again, I’m almost glad because had this book been any longer it would have been put aside and not completed. Unfortunately, this is the end of the road for me and this author; I will not read future books by her. Want to read a good WWII book, read The Book Thief or Skeletons at the Feast. I enjoyed those much more immensely than this book.

  4. z hayes
    October 27th, 2010 at 08:54 | #4

    Rating

    Having been long interested in the Holocaust [and having taught it for about 8 years], I was eager to read this new novel by Tatiana de Rosnay that though a work of fiction, is fact-based.

    July 1942 marked a dark period in the history of France where thousands of Jewish families were rounded up and forcibly kept in the Velodrome d’Hiver. They were then sent off to transit camps in France such as Drancy, before being packed off to Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp. What is so unnerving about this whole incident is that the rounding up and mobilisation of Jews for deportation was done by the French authorities.

    Based upon this seldom mentioned, little known piece of French history, author Tatiana de Rosnay has crafted a well-written novel that alternates between the past in 1942, and the present. The past centers around a 10 year old Jewish girl Sarah Strazynski who is forced to go to the Velodrome d’Hiver with her mother and father, innocently leaving behind a 4 year old brother Michel locked in a secret cupboard with the assurance that she would return to let him out when it was safe.

    The present revolves around writer Julia Jarmond, a transplanted American who is married to a frenchman and finds herself being consumed by the story of the Vel d’Hiv incident. As she digs deeper, she uncovers dark secrets surrounding her husband’s family which are connected to the deportations of Jews from France. As the truth emerges, the author deftly handles the question of guilt caused by supressed secrets and how the truth can sometimes not only bring about pain and disrupt the regularity of life, yet also have the ability to heal and move forwards into the future.

    The method employed by the author, wch alternates between the past [1942] and the present is an effective tool for it ties both periods together and brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. I do confess though that I found the story of the past much more dramatic and interesting than the one which deals with Julia in the present. On the whole though, it was an engrossing read and I would recommend it, especially to those interested in the genre. I’d also recommend the following books which deal with the Holocaust and France: “The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews” by Susan Zuccoti (non-fiction), “One Step Ahead of Hitler: A Jewish Child’s Journey Through France” by Fred Gross (memoir), and “France:The Dark Years, 1940-1944″ by Julian Jackson (non-fiction and more for those already familiar with the history of the period).

  5. Jane Wittbrodt
    October 27th, 2010 at 10:10 | #5

    Rating

    This book seems to have two different authors. The first writes a poignant, riveting story based on an important event in history. De Rosnay weaves a personal human tragedy into the horror of Vel’d'Hiv’, smacking the reader in the face with man’s inhumanity to man. The first half of the book and its conclusion were heartbreaking, physically painful, and I felt that De Rosnay was making the statement of her life. I will “Zakhor. Al Tiehkah/ Remember. Never Forget”.

    The second half of the book made me mad. I only kept reading because of Julia’s relationship with her father-in-law. It was predictable, Hollywood schlock.

    I wish the author would rewrite the book from page 160 without the superfluous characters, destinations… and without Julia’s incessant, repetitious thought process. Unfortunately, De Rosnay dilutes a powerful story and loses her reader’s respect; respect that I think was well earned in the first half of the book.

  6. Marianna R. Steriadis
    October 28th, 2010 at 00:39 | #6

    Rating

    I’m here in Paris for the summer for an NEH Seminar entitled Visions of the Dark Years: World War II and its legacy in France, and I’m doing a project on the “rafle du Vel d’Hiv”- the massive round-up of Jews that took place in Paris on July 16th, 1942. I purchased this book in French at the bookstore at Le Memorial de la Shoah, not knowing that it had been translated from English. The story is haunting, and interesting, as we follow it in flashbacks. I am doing an annotated bibliography of books on the subject for my seminar project. This story will appeal to my younger students, teaching them at the same time of this shameful episode of French collaboration with the German occupiers, under the Vichy government. France was the only occupied European country to pass its own laws regarding Jews, which were even stricter than those of the Third Reich. By looking the other way,and pretending not to know where the Jews were being transported after the local French camps at Drancy and Pithiviers (they were immediately transported to Auschwitz) some 9,000 French police catalogued and arrested over 13,000 French and foreign Jews residing in France, and sent them to the Velodrome d’Hiver, a large stadium in Paris. This is a shameful episode in French history, retold in a poignant and gripping fashion.

  7. Nadyne Richmond
    October 30th, 2010 at 04:06 | #7

    Rating

    The back of the book intrigued me: a story of a young French Jew who hides her brother as their family is rounded up during the Holocaust, and the 21st century journalist who stumbles across the girl’s story and is compelled to find out its ending.

    The book, however, is a major disappointment. The author’s handling of the events, both the horrific historic ones and those in the present day, is ham-handed. The first half of the book is told in alternating chapters between the child Sarah (although the child’s name isn’t revealed until much later; an odd device, given that the child’s name is in the book title) and the journalist Julia. Sarah’s story is harrowing, but even the horror of it is masked by the amateur writing.

    Once Sarah’s voice is no longer to be found in the book, the amateur writing becomes even more comical. We watch Julia go through a mid-life crisis that has been written by more able authors before, and finally settle into a life that fits her better.

    The ideas that the book puts forth are challenging: what did the French know as the Jews were rounded up? why did they ignore their part in the Holocaust for so long? what culpability is there for a population that let such horrors happen? Had the author addressed those questions, this could have been a great novel. Instead, it’s bad chick lit with a side of even worse historical fiction.

  8. J. Marren
    October 30th, 2010 at 18:07 | #8

    Rating

    “Sarah’s Key” is one of the millions of tragic stories of the Holocaust; although fiction, it is easy to imagine that it happened. Unfortunately, de Rosnay’s novel employs the familiar “parallel stories” technique, and as a result de Rosnay manages to trivialize this terrible episode in French history. Juxtaposed with the tragedy of Sarah and her family is the story of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist married to a Frenchman, living in Paris. Julia’s story is mundane and uninteresting–a foolishly vain, unfaithful husband; an unexpected pregnancy; chilly in-laws. Who cares? I didn’t. As others have observed, once Sarah’s voice disappeared from the story, it was hard to stay engaged. Plus the ending was silly; Holocaust stories didn’t and shouldn’t have happy endings. It’s too bad–this story needs to be told, but we’ll have to wait for someone else to do it.

  9. Roger Brunyate
    October 30th, 2010 at 18:13 | #9

    Rating

    In the first half of this book, two stories interlace with each other in short alternating chapters. Sarah Starzynski, a ten-year-old Parisian girl born to Jewish parents, is captured in the round-up of June 16, 1942, and imprisoned with almost 10,000 others in an indoor cycling arena, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, awaiting transportation to Auschwitz. When the police arrive, she has just time to hide her younger brother in a concealed closet in their apartment, locking him in and promising to return. Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, an American journalist married to a Frenchman, researching for a story on the “Vél d’Hiv,” stumbles on the trail of Sarah’s family, and becomes obsessed with trying to discover her fate. She is struck by the fact that the round-up and subsequent disposal was carried out, not by the Gestapo, but by ordinary French policemen, enabled by a citizenry that for the most part looked the other way. A coincidental discovery leads her to question the involvement of her husband’s family at the time and to re-examine her own marriage.

    Apart from this one coincidence that one has to grant for the sake of the novel, Tatiana de Rosnay mostly avoids melodrama, excessive sentiment, or plot surprises. Sarah’s story may be merely a variant on the Holocaust narrative often told before, but its child’s-eye viewpoint gives it a moving authenticity, and the short chapters keep it bearable. Especially touching are the glimpses of individual concern and kindness among the general indifference of the French people; the novel honors those unsung saints and heroes who put aside their fear to help in individual ways.

    At the half-way point, however, de Rosnay is forced to give up Sarah’s direct narrative, telling her story solely through what Julia Jarmond is able to discover about her. Julia is an attractive character, a woman in her forties trying to balance the demands of profession, motherhood, and marriage, while retaining her independence as a foreign female in a chauvinistic society; her story could make an interesting novel all on its own. But it cannot possibly compete with the searing truth of the Holocaust, and for the first half of the book it makes no attempt to do so. When the side-by-side narrative ends, we are indeed invested in Julia’s personal concerns, but may feel uneasy about it, as though her questions of personal identity and romance are trivial compared to the horror of where the book started. To de Rosnay’s credit, she does not try to tie everything up in an implausibly neat ending, but she cannot stop the book from thinning out at the end, although the final pages are touching and suitably unresolved.

    Any novel dealing with the Holocaust is full of echoes of other books. De Rosnay’s portrayal of Parisians under occupation chimes perfectly with the picture in SUITE FRANCAISE by Irène Nemirovsky, who herself suffered the same fate as Sarah’s family. The transit camps and deportation of French Jews feature in Sebastian Faulks’ CHARLOTTE GRAY. And the story of an American in France looking into an earlier time somewhat resembles THE VIRGIN BLUE by Tracy Chevalier, an author whom De Rosnay apparently admires. Readers who enjoyed any one of these would probably appreciate SARAH’S KEY, a book that stands up well to all but the first of them.

  10. Bob T
    October 31st, 2010 at 04:56 | #10

    Rating

    The historical part of the novel is interesting and when history is writing the novel it is at its best. In the early part of the novel the super short choppy chapters are distracting, but the story and characters are interesting enough to overcome it. You can even overlook the obvious problem of Zoe who is supposedly 11 but is written with the maturity of an adult. But when the main character turns maniacally obsessive about a person she never met that died over 30 years ago the book turns into a sloppy, wandering mess. I could barely get through the last couple (again, irritatingly super short) chapters. The characters at the end were pathetic and I was irritated because this could have been a great novel, instead it was just a waste of time.

  11. Silly Sister
    October 31st, 2010 at 08:44 | #11

    Rating

    Tatiana Rosnay’s book, Sarah’s Key, is the story of the 1942 Vel d’Hiv roundup of the Jews in Paris, as seen through the eyes of eleven year old Sarah, a French Jew. It is also the story of Julia Jarmond, a journalist living in Paris in 2002 and writing the story about the roundup for a magazine, on the sixtieth anniversary of the event. The two plot lines take turns, one short chapter at a time, and twine together nicely to conclusion.

    In the summer of 1942, the Jews of Paris were rounded up for deportation. A common enough story during World War II, only this time it wasn’t an action being carried out by German soldiers, but by the French gendarme, in the greatest collaboration of the police in occupied France and the German occupiers during the entire war. Rosnay’s story follows Sarah Starzynski, eleven years old and caught with her mother and father in the action later known as the Vel d’Hiv roundup. Sarah’s 4 year old brother, Michel, insists that he isn’t going anywhere when the police pound on the door of their apartment, and makes Sarah lock him in the hidden cupboard in his bedroom – their secret hiding place. Sarah pockets the brass key to the cupboard door, thinking she will be right back, surely, to let him out again. But no one had told Sarah that the families with children, being herded into the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an unused cycling stadium, were earmarked for transit to Auschwitz and an immediate appointment with the gas chambers.

    Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, a journalist and the American wife of a French architect with a family bound by ugly secrets connected to Sarah’s fate, is coincidentally drawn to Sarah’s story and becomes nearly obsessed with finding out what happened to her after being transported out of the Vélodrome. Sarah’s mother and father are listed on memorials to those who died in Auschwitz, but what happened to Sarah and her brother? The truth could destroy her marriage, but the choice of whether or not to follow the trail to its end has little to do with a career decision.

    Just as the American confinement of the US citizens of Japanese descent during WWII is not something proudly taught in our classrooms, the Vel d’Hiv roundup is a subject about which an astonishing number of French people are ignorant or oblivious. Of the Jews rounded up in Paris and herded to the Vélodrome on July 16th and 17th, more than half – 4,115 to be exact – were children under fifteen years of age. Unlike our own shameful action against Japanese-Americans however, the roundup of Jews was not limited to internment and the confiscation of property. Sarah’s story is, by its very subject matter, a heart wrenching one. I fought tears several times as I read the book, and I am not a newcomer to the subject. I have read countless books about the German atrocities during the war, but this fictionalized account of one girl’s journey, and the woman determined to follow her to whatever end awaited her, exposed me to a piece of history I am ashamed to say I had previously overlooked.

    Early in the book, Julia Jarmond interviews an old Parisian woman who witnessed the deportation of the Jews from the Vélodrome d’Hiver, who tells Julia, “Nobody remembers the Vel d’Hiv children you know. Nobody is interested.” After reading Tatiana Rosnay’s book, I personally will never forget them.

  12. Thomas Paul
    November 3rd, 2010 at 04:49 | #12

    Rating

    It isn’t often that I find a book that I can recommend without reservation. This is one of those books. The story is fascinating, emotional, and pulls you in. You won’t want to put it down but you will so you can think about what you have just read. You will have to remind yourself to take a breath. It will make you cry and cheer.

    On July 16, 1942, the French police rounded up Jewish families in order to send them to Auschwitz for extermination. The Nazis wanted only the adults but the French took whole families and then tore them apart. The children were ultimately sent later and all (more than 4,000) were immediately killed as soon as they arrived at the death camp. Sarah is 10 years old when the Paris police knock on her door. Her 4 year old brother Michel is too terrified to go so Sarah locks him in a secret cabinet promising to come back to free him and then she is taken away.

    Sixty years later, Julia, an American living in Paris, is given the assignment of writing an article for the sixtieth anniversary of what has become known as Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv, the roundup and murder of Parisian Jews in 1942. As she investigates the story she finds that few French know or care about those events. It is the past and most Parisians wish to leave it that way. During her research, Julia discovers the story of Sarah and finds that Sarah’s story intermingles with her family’s story as the apartment that her husband’s family moved into in 1942 is the same apartment Sarah was torn from in 1942.

    The first half of the book mixes these two stories in short chapters of only a couple of pages that keep the story moving quickly. The story of Sarah is what we wish to follow so the interludes with Julia as we learn about her family, her job, and the beginnings of her investigation of Sarah are kept short. The result is that the first half of the book is among some of the best writing I have encountered recently. We learn the story of Sarah, a character we wish we could wrap our arms around and protect, while being introduced to Julia, a character that we learn to like.

    At the end of the first half of the book, Sarah’s voice is gone and we count on Julia, who we have learned to like, to tell us the rest of the story. de Rosnay wraps Julia and Sarah’s story together in the second half of the book so that we learn what happened to Sarah through Julia’s investigation as we see how Sarah’s story changes Julia. The second half of the story is not as strong as the first half but I still could not put the book down and had to race through the last chapters to find how it ends. This is an amazing story that reminds us that the Holocaust was about the murder of innocent people including little children whose only crime was being born Jewish. Strongly recommended.

  13. J. Johnston
    November 4th, 2010 at 05:58 | #13

    Rating

    I read this book in two days-devoured Sarah’s storytelling and mired through Julia’s voice. Julia’s part of this story is laborious and boring. I was expecting so much more as this book was so highly recommend by a friend who said she was crying through most of it. I laughed at how cliche the themes were in Julia’s voice. I knew the ending about 3/4 of the way through. If you are looking to learn more about the Vélodrome d’Hiver round-up (something I knew nothing about) this is a great beginners introduction. Sarah’s story is wonderful and tragic, but couldn’t make up for the cliche Julia side.

  14. This book opened my eyes
    November 4th, 2010 at 20:03 | #14

    Rating

    If you didn’t already know how Jews were treated in WWII this book gives some important fact about the horror. However, I’ve read a lot of books about this era in the past 45 years and Sarah’s Key ranks at the very bottom of my reading list. It’s good for showing how NOT to write. The author has focused on an important historical event, and apparently she’s satisfied a lot of readers. But I found the book itself dreadful for many of the same reasons given by other readers above: It’s wordy, wordy, wordy, and filled with choppy, redundant sentences, poor character development, weak plotting, and heavy sentimentality. De Rosnay has little ability to use language in a way that conveys the sense of a place, a situation, an era, or the truths of a human heart. Instead she pounds the reader over the head again and again with the same few points about the Vel’ d’Hiv’. and wastes the rest of the book letting her narrator stew. In short sentences. To no good end.

  15. S. Hanson
    November 5th, 2010 at 16:28 | #15

    Rating

    The theme and historical context of this book is certainly compelling and the moral issues raised by the story, though familiar, are still intriguing. However, once the key elements of Sarah’s story are revealed, the book looses steam and we are left with the banal life crisis facing our journalist narrator who comes off frequently as more than a little spineless, letting the people around her direct the flow of her thoughts and actions. The angst of modern life over-shadows past tragedy. Most of the author’s characters seem stereotyped, merely cardboard cut-outs who are ill-suited to the task of explicating the difficult gray areas between good and evil. When Joshua, Julia’s editor, points out to her the fact that she has left out one whole side of Sarah’s difficult story, he might as well be describing this novel. It never really does address the issues of responsibility and moral culpability in any deep and meaningful way. When Sarah’s voice disappears from the narrative, the book looses its psychological edge and Julia’s subsequent quest seems to lack real purpose. The confrontations which do take place towards the end of the novel are not the one’s a reader might be anticipating and ultimately, leave the reader feeling unsatisfied and disappointed. Read this book to learn more about the Jewish experience in occupied France but don’t expect to be challenged–this book doesn’t take readers anywhere near the true tragedy symbolized by Sarah’s key.

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