Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Sarah's Key is the story of one young girl's experience during the roundups of Jews in France during 1942, while also telling the story of Julia Jarmond, the journalist who pulls Sarah's story out of obscurity and finds the girl's connections to her own life. The story begins with the terror that Sarah and her family face as the French police begin to scour neighborhoods in order to gather the Jewish residents for deportation. During the frantic visit by police, Sarah's four-year-old brother hides in a secret cupboard, refusing to come out. Sarah convinces little Michel to stay put and be quiet, locking him into the cupboard, with hopes that the roundup will be a short affair. The rest of the family are then taken to an outdoor stadium to wait for deportation to various death camps, leaving little Michel helpless and alone, locked in a cupboard to which only Sarah has the key. As the small family faces the horrors of the roundup, Sarah is haunted by the loss of Michel and vows to return to her home and rescue him. Her journey through the war and her eventual fate take her to places that even she would never expect. The other half of the story focuses on journalist Julia's marital struggles with her husband Bertrand. Though they love one another, their lives seem to be going in separate directions, and Bertrand is far from a doting partner. As Julia begins to realize that her path in life is slowly diverging from Bertrand's in almost every way, she discovers that Bertrand and his family share a personal connection with Julia's new story: the Jewish roundup of 1942. And it is this story that draws Julia closer to the existence and struggles of Sarah.
Although this story began as a parallel narrative between Sarah and Julia, about halfway through the author dropped the alternating viewpoints and began to focus solely on Julia's story. I think this weakned the story and sacrificed much of its urgency. Sarah's struggle was poignant and moving, and when it ended the whole rest of the book took different direction, a more soap-operaish flavor. Although I was interested in Julia's marriage woes, I found Sarah's story more compelling and was a bit non-plussed that that thread had been lost. Some bits of the story seemed a little far-fetched, such as Julia's all-consuming passion in finding out what had happened to Sarah and her family. At times it seemed that her reasoning for this was slightly melodramatic, and that made it harder to buy into as a reader. Julia had a myriad of problems going on in her personal life, yet she shoved everything away to focus on an unknown girl's fate in wartime France? It just didn't ring true.
Although some parts of this story were awkward, there were some great aspects of the book as well. I found that the shorter, alternating chapters created a palpable tension in both story lines. It seemed that the author gave just a little in each section, teasing out both story lines to their fullest effect. I also liked the character portrayals: there were a range of personalities to get to know, and they were all multi-dimensional. For example, though Julia's husband Bertrand was an insensitive brute, he had sides of him that made him at least a little sympathetic to the reader. Julia wasn't painted with the "perfect" paintbrush either. She had moments of unlikablity and I found that this endeared me to her character more readily, as she seemed like more of a real person. Though this story had its ups and downs, Sarah's portions were handled expertly. In attempting to give these lost forgotten children of history a voice, the author did wonderful work through the story of Sarah. I read with tension and disbelief the atrocities that were forced on these people, and cried, realizing that for many, this was their reality and their demise. The cruelty of the perpetrators of these acts amazed and saddened me, and I found myself caught up in the dread and fear that marked their fate. Sarah's remarkable story was the lifeblood of this book, and though at times it was painful and penetrating, it was also told very impressively.
Though I wish that this book would have remained a parallel narrative and that more of the story would have been told from Sarah's point of view, I did like Julia's portions and found myself getting emotionally invested in her story. Both stories, though very different, were engrossing in their own ways. Despite the fact that I struggled with issues of believability in the Julia storyline, I did eventually begin to care for her as a character and hoped that her story would end satisfactorily. On the other hand, Sarah's story grabbed me from the first page and never let up all the way through, and it is because of this brilliant bit of storytelling that that this book was ultimately a winner.