This evening was my first meeting with my newfound book club. I am still high off of the wonderful conversation and the amazing women, who with their graceful humor, reminded me of my much forgotten spirit over the last few months. You would think after reading a World War II book one may feel more anguish than vitality, but this was not the case.
Sarah’s Key was a mostly well constructed balance of modern day woes and the treacherous occurrences of the holocaust victims, if you can believe it. The truth is, there were times you could not believe it. Each chapter was a teeter-totter between modern day life of narrator, Julia, and heroin, Sarah. Which at first, worked very well, but as the story went on I found myself longing for Sarah’s story.
You begin with ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski and her mother being arrested by the French police; as Sarah is supposed to be collecting her things she locks her younger brother in a secret tunnel behind their bedroom wall where she believes he will be safe. She promises him she will be back, and places the key in her dress pocket, believing whole-heartedly: this is all a big mistake.
(Spoiler Alert) As the story continues, we see the horrible conditions Sarah, her mother, and eventually her father are faced with at a camp known as the Vel’ d’Hiv, short for Velodrome d’Hiver. Blonde haired, blue eyed Sarah grew up in France, but is of Jewish descent. De Rosnay explains how Sarah became aware that she was different after her mother sewed the star on her school clothing, though throughout the story never understood why, nor did she understand the hatred brought forth upon her and her family. You watch Sarah’s time in the camp unfold as she is parted from her father, then ripped from her mother’s arms. When she escapes with another girl from the camp, Rachel, she finds kindness in a nearby family who eventually takes her back to her home where she is faced with the awful truth of her brother, she always knew, but only now was it real.
The narrator, Julia is an American who has lived in France for over 25 years. She married a Frenchman with a wandering eye, and a lustful charm – the stereotypical man of France. Her issues with her husband’s infidelity, and his blatant disapproval of her mid-life pregnancy, prove to be first-world problems against Sarah’s struggles. At first, Julia’s ramblings seem dramatic, and almost nonsensical, until you realize that the author is comparing the two sides. The comparison shows us that it could always be worse.
Julia is researching the Vel’ d’Hiv for her magazine when she realizes the apartment that they are renovating, and that has been in the family for decades, is the same apartment where Sarah’s family was arrested, and where she found her brother on that fateful day. Overcome with emotion and remorse, Julia researches Sarah and her family further. The research eventually brings her to the family that took Sarah in, and the family that Sarah created before committing suicide at a young age.
Julia comes in contact with Sarah’s son, William, who at first is unsure of Julia but then grateful and friendly. In the end, Julia breaks free of her French husband, moves back to New York, and brings truth and peace to Sarah’s family.
Overall, it was an educational story. So many are unaware of French involvement in WWII, especially to this extent. Sometimes long-winded, and Julia, sometimes overly-dramatized aside, the book was gut-wrenching and inspirational. It asks the question: what would you have done, had you been Sarah? And what would you have done had you been an onlooker in the moment with Sarah?