Book Review: Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key
With the movie version of best-selling author Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key due for release in the U.S. on July 22, this seems a perfect time to review the 2008 novel of the same name. I listened to the novel last month in the MacMillan audio version on my daily treks to and from the office, as well as on a trip to Boston with my husband. Even though he came in mid-novel, my husband got hooked enough to want the recap; not a bad recommendation coming from someone who prefers music on his travels.
The novel features two parallel story lines – always an interesting feature from a writing perspective. We first meet 45-year-old journalist Julia Jarmond, an American by birth, who moved to Paris at 20 and, as we learn in flashback, soon marries the French businessman Bertrand Tezac. When Julia’s present day editor assigns her to cover the 60th anniversary of a painful period
in French World War II history she has no idea the secrets her research will reveal. The second – and for me the more compelling of the two storylines – begins in July 1942 when thousands of Jewish families are rounded up by French police and held in the Velodrome d’Hiver outside of Paris from which they are eventually deported to Auschwitz. This storyline focuses sharply on 10-year-old Sarah Strarzynski who is one of the victims of this horrific event in French history. Believing she’ll keep her 4-year-old brother Michel safe by locking him in a secret bedroom cupboard when the French police arrive, Sarah thus dooms her beloved sibling to an almost certain death by her own hand.
Sarah holds onto the cupboard key of the novel’s title as a talisman and when she miraculously escapes her own fate in the death camp, her only thought is to release her little brother from his captivity. In the modern storyline, we follow Julia as she researches the Vel dHiv roundups while her architect husband is readying their new apartment — a seemingly sumptuous space which has been in his family for decades. Not surprisingly, it is in the apartment that the two stories intersect and for quite a while de Rosnay does a fine job of keeping the mystery going as Julia researches what happens to the Starzynski family.
The novel is more successful before the mystery concerning the little boy’s survival is revealed. But at a certain point, de Rosnay is forced to abandon Sarah’s direct narrative and the story is subsequently told through the lens of Julia as she discovers what becomes of Sarah. Julia’s own story, one largely focused on her wandering, arrogant husband and her precocious 11-year-old daughter, seems to leave readers with two reactions: one being that Julia’s modern story appears a bit banal; or alternately that the present anchors the past and adds to the intrigue while giving the reader relief from the Holocaust theme. Whichever side you tend towards, I do find this a novel worth reading for both the little-known aspects of French history it reveals and for its plot structure.
For writers, it’s difficult to read a book without contemplating the inner machinations of the author’s devices –what one of my grad school professors called “the seams.” In this case, de Rosnay’s efforts to sensibly structure, create plot tension, and keep two
plotlines at least somewhat equal in reader fascination can be instructive to the writer.
With a French father and English mother, Tatiana de Rosnay has an interesting bloodline that includes an English diplomat, a Russian actress, and a French painter, not to mention the French scientist and British engineer. In other words, she’s a true European. She has ten novels out, but not all of them are known to American audiences. Sarah’s Key was her first in English,
but A Secret Kept (2010) debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. Together with Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson, de Rosnay was named one the of the top three fiction writers in Europe in 2010. She is indeed a writer to pay attention to.
The film version of the novel, directed by Gilles Parquet-Brenner, has Kristin Scott Thomas playing Julia. The movie got
positive buzz in 2010 at the Toronto Film Festival. This is one you might want to hunt down on the art house circuit but, of course, not before reading the novel first!