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Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

sarah's key bookSarah’s Key alternates between WWII Paris, with a young Jewish girl, Sarah, and a middle-aged journalist, Julia, living in Paris with her French husband and their daughter. Despite the decades between them, Julia discovers that her life links with Sarah’s in unexpected ways.

I love it when the stars align and the book announced for bookclub is one I’m already reading and nearly done with. My mom suggested Sarah’s Key book (after her bookclub read it) since I tend to like historical fiction, so I’d downloaded it and listened to it while I made batch after batch of lemon cream (what, you don’t think an audiobook is a good excuse for endless sweets making?).

sarah’s key by tatiana de rosnay

The story of Sarah’s Key switches between two story lines – one is Julia, a forty-year old journalist who moved to Paris after college, married a handsome, arrogant Frenchman and has lived there ever since. The other story is Sarah’s, a ten-year-old Jewish girl living in Paris with her family during WWII.

Sarah’s family is arrested by the French police, along with many other Jews, and taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver outside the city where they are kept for a few days before they are shipped off to Auschwitz. History reports that none of the French Jews who went to Auschwitz ever came back; the only ones who lived are those very few who managed to escape before they arrived at Auschwitz. Which makes Julia frantic to determine whether or not Sarah’s family managed to escape.

And why does she care so much? Because the apartment she and her family are about to move into, a Paris apartment her in-laws have owned for decades and are currently remodeling, turns out to be the apartment Sarah’s family lived in until their arrest. Her in-laws moved in just days after the arrests, not knowing (although probably guessing) what had happened to its former occupants.

And so, having never heard of the round up of French Jews, Julia is suddenly obsessed with learning more about the event, the aftermath, and, most especially, Sarah and her family.

This comes on top of quite a lot of personal drama in Julia’s life, none of which is made easier by her unflagging determination to uncover the truth of what happened with Sarah’s family and her own in-laws decades earlier. Her husband and her father-in-law, especially, wish she would just let it go.

Look, of COURSE there were parts you could see coming a thousand miles away. And yes, sometimes the romantic drama in someone’s life is hard to make gripping as when someone’s LIFE is on the line in anti-Semitic countries.

But it’s also a lot of fascinating and horrifying information about an event I knew nothing about. And Julia is a perfect lens through which to view this history. As an American, she’s not as invested in living in denial of the French people’s involvement in sending people off to killing camps – she wants to know the truth. And her personal struggles, while little compared to Sarah’s lot in life, are still difficult.

And isn’t that the way it always is? Whatever your personal trials, no matter how small compared to the horrors in someone else’s life, they are difficult while you’re going through them.

The end tapered, sadly. Sarah’s story wraps up a good deal before Julia’s and then Julia’s story just keeeeeeeeeps going. Why must some books do this? Sarah’s Key is not the best book I’ve read, by any means, but one of those popular books I’m glad to have read.

I do think I liked it better because I listened to it on audio. I found the reader very good and while I’ve heard other people say that Julia is annoying, I thought the narration made her possibly less so.

Anyone else read this? I’m always curious what others think about extremely popular books.

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  1. I did read this, and I felt the same way you did – enjoyable, but a bit meh towards the end. But I also felt glad to have read it (I sometimes shun popular books out of a kind of snobbism. I should get over that).

  2. Ooh, I'm so glad you reviewed this! I've been hearing a lot about it, and hesitant to pick it up. Since you liked it so much, I'll add it to my list!

  3. I've read this. I really liked Sarah's story, but I didn't care for Julia's. Once Sarah's story ended, I lost interest, and I thought the book should have ended a lot sooner than it did. It dragged on for too long.

  4. I enjoyed this book with it's flip flop historical view. I felt like it was an almost too perfect end to the story. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  5. I totally agree with Britt. It was hard for me to relate with Julia and I found her annoying. I didn't like the way the book ended either.

  6. I agree with Britt and Jaime: I really did not care for Julia. The writing irritated me in general though, like, why didn't she name the little girl from the start? Um, she's a little girl that we're following and she has a key in her pocket … could her name be SARAH? I remember jotting down a few lines with notes like, "Who TALKS like this?!" That kind of stuff really annoyed me, and then I didn't even find the ending satisfying. So I didn't like it, but I was a minority in my book club.

    However! I did find the historical context fascinating. I would be interested in a nonfiction account of the same events.

  7. I think people talked it up to much and my expectations were too high. I didn't find the characters particularly likeable. Julia seemed dense and her husband was wretched.

    I will say though, some of my dislike of this book was because I'm sick to death of shifting narrators. So many authors use the device now that it's getting to be a cliche.

  8. You just blew my mind, Janssen! I only ever considered audio books for car trips. Or exercising. (Well, for other people exercising.) But to listen whilst BAKING? That is genius.

    I am going to tell my husband right away as he love both baking and audio booking. I sense lots of brownies in my future!

  9. I read this book in early February and really enjoyed it. I've always loved books set in this era and I think it's due to the raw emotions that WWII evokes.
    I did find that once Sarah's 'voice' was done (about 2/3 of the way through the book) I did lose a bit of interest. Overall an excellent read.
    If you're looking for something along the same lines (and a book that I adored) check out "In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer" (http://thebakingbookworm.blogspot.com/2010/10/in-my-hands-memories-of-holocaust.html). A true story which made it even more emotionally charged for me.

  10. I agree with RA. The beginning, when they wouldn't say Sarah's name, was completely annoying. And the last CD took me just as long to listen to as the first 7 CDs because it draaaaaaaged on. I wasn't crazy about the book but it was very interesting.

  11. sounds like you are going through somewhat of a food conversion like myself. I just want to eat fresh yummy food! But alas…I can only afford it to an extent. We watched Food Inc. a couple months ago as well. I've really been enjoying this blog – maybe you will also

  12. I just heard about this, and was so excited I put it in my To Read Pile. And now…I dunno, I hate great ideas with bad endings (Poisonwood Bible, anyone?)


  13. It was interesting to read about this historical event I knew nothing about but I found some of the details to be far too gruesome for my taste, especially the parts relating to the little kids. And I completely agree about the end. I felt it went on far too long and then had a completely "blah" ending. I didn't love it.

  14. I just read this one. I liked it. It only took me a couple of hours to get it done, which might be why I liked it so much. Of course I'm a sucker for WW2 literature, but I thought this was nicely done. If you want a truly fantastic read, check out Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise… stunning!

  15. I read this last year sometime, and it is still haunting me now! I agree with some of the others, that Julia's story dragged on a bit, but overall, it was a good book, I think, and a subject I've read a great deal about (the Holocaust in general, not French Jews specifically).

  16. parts of this book hit too close to home for me, but I did enjoy it. Ditto the comments regarding the ending. I would still recommend it.

  17. I really enjoyed this book. It was super fast, I didn't really feel like too many parts dragged on because I read it in a few hours so it was quick. There were a few parts that bothered me, like when Julia said she loved the baby inside her as much as she loved her daughter…then she considered going through with the abortion…hmmm. That probably only bothered me because I am pregnant though. Sarah's fate REALLLLY bothered me although I wondered how many people shared her fate after surviving. Also, I was sure things with her brother were going to turn out differently. I was CERTAIN. I was wrong. I was bothered.

  18. I read this but I didn't love it. I think the contemporary story didn't really add much to the historical one…and if the historical one had been more fleshed out it would have been a stronger book altogether. I cared about Sarah and perhaps in another book I would have cared about Julia's story, but combined, not so much.

    That said, i didn't know ANYTHING about the French response to the Nazis, so just for that information I am glad I read it.

  19. I should always come to your blog before I read a book because you seem to have read it. I've been debating since I first saw this book at Barnes & Noble – even with the dragging ending, I may finally take the plunge.

  20. ps. You commented about the Ya-Ya books – if you're ever going to those, read Little Altars Everywhere and then The Divine Secrets — people will tell you it doesn't matter, but it totally does. You need the background from Little Altars for The Divine Secrets to have its impact.

  21. While Julia was focusing on Sarah's journey with energy and intensity, the novel remained intriguing; when Sarah's story ended half way through and the novel began to focus solely on Julia, Rosnay lost it. Julia isn't half so captivating or developed a character – nor is her plight half so interesting – as when readers are offered a glimpse into the sad, forbidding details of Sarah's young life. Interwoven with historical fact, the novel remains only a mediocre read and hardly on the same level as other Holocaust fiction, despite its singular focus on France. Definitely not one to read a second time.

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