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.
I don’t even know where to start with this one. It’s after one in the morning and I JUST finished this book. After several recommendations for me to read this, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. Even after reading the synopsis, I was bracing myself for SOME grittiness and otherwise depressing elements, considering the time period and subject matter. I was not prepared for what I got. I’ve never been a history buff. I thoroughly enjoy historical fiction, but I’ve always been very inept at the subject. I remember reading both The Boy and the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne and The Night by Elie Wiesel just last year. Both were equally horrifying in their content and shed some light on the plight of the Jewish community. While I was in school, I was taught about Hitler and Nazi Germany with vague but still haunting accounts of the treatment of the Jewish people. To read up close and personal experiences of just what happened in the camps in all three of these books, still brought up many emotions for me. In Sarah’s Key, however, a young girl’s time at the concentration camp is only the BEGINNING of her sorrow filled trials. For in her case, it was not the Germans that dragged her and her parents away from their apartment. Not the obvious Nazi soldiers with their clean pressed grey uniforms with the bold symbol stamped upon the fabric. It was the French police. People her family knew. This, along with France’s inability to accept and remember this atrocious period began a long and heartbreaking journey for both me and the characters.
The author paints a vivid and cruel picture with the goings on with little Sarah’s life. The young girl is ripped away from her family very early on and forced to endure terrible things all alone. In the beginning, each chapter switches both time periods and points of views. As the reader, we are taken back to July of 1942 with ten year old Sarah Starzynksi, then switch to a forty year old journalist named Julia Jarmond, during the early 2,000s. This was done in a very effective manner, both building up mystery and unfolding a somber story. I won’t lie, this book takes a toll on the reader. Not in a bad way mind you. I personally believe an author succeeds when they pull strong emotions from the reader. When they make you angry, cry or laugh with joy right with the characters. Which is exactly what this book did for me. As the reader, you feel the desperation and despair of the events unraveling, and like the characters, you are hopeful for something pleasant to occur. The switching of the points of views uses these feelings to keep the reader on the edge of her seat, just hoping for answers in the next chapter.
The characters for the most part, were very well written and complex. I was really fond of Julia in particular, because the author makes sure you understand her predicament and desperation to learn more about Sarah and her family. Being an American born woman surrounded by the people of France, most of whom would rather remain ignorant about their involvement in Vel’ d’Hiv, really isolates her and makes her relate able. Not to mention her French husband, Bertrand, and the majority of his family, do not care for her digging into the past and remain indifferent. Going into this, I had never heard of the events surrounding the Vel’ d’Hiv, so when Julia would learn a new historical fact, so would I. The more information Julia gathers, the more she begins to evolve. You can really feel her emotions as she struggles to both cling to, and be repulsed by her current life. The title character, Sarah Starzynski, is a character surrounded by awful circumstances. Being only ten in 1942, she has so many horrors thrust upon her that she ceases to be a little girl fairly quickly. The author does a wonderful job, switching between that childlike optimism and utter hopelessness. As the reader, your heart breaks for her and you just want her to find happiness and peace. Julia’s daughter Zoe is also a like able character, being so young and yet so wise and attentive. You feel the bond that Zoe has with her mother, and her willingness to do whatever it takes to help Julia, is both adorable and refreshing. Julia’s father in law, Edouard, is also an interesting character and has a very understandable character arc. You see the weight of his decisions have really taken a toll on him, which makes him very human. Considering Julia had only known him as a one of the strong, silent types, his moment of revelation is both a surprise to her and the reader. Unlike his father however, Bertrand, is a despicable piece of work. As Julia’s husband, all he does time and time again is increase my distaste for him. He is so unlike able, that he is two shades from twirling a cartoon mustache and kicking puppies in the street. The rest of the characters were either not in the book very much or I don’t want to elaborate due to spoilers, which will be below the review. All in all, a good ensemble.
Another thing I will say is this book kept me guessing. I went into this thinking I knew exactly how things were going to unfold and progress. I’m usually pretty good at that. Thankfully, this book took chances and turns that I didn’t expect which made it all the more hair raising and memorable. I cannot recommend this book enough, but be warned potential reader, it can get pretty intense.
Pros: well written, great descriptive language and diction, memorable and relate able characters, historical elements, unpredictable, takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster
Cons: Bertrand, certain plot points for the story
People I recommend this for: Anyone who enjoys historical fiction, drama, or mystery
~~The Page Maiden
SPOILERS BELOW!! DO NOT LOOK IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
I mean it.
Don’t even think about it.
Ok so like I said, I wasn’t prepared for the sheer amount of sadness and depression that this book would bring to me. I thought that Sarah would come home, find her brother gone and eventually find out that someone busted him out of the cupboard. Several years down the road, she would find out that he was adopted by another family and they would one day be reunited. When they were both adults or even as two elderly siblings, I was expecting SOME sort of sweet reunion to come from this horrible and tragic point in their lives.
She travels all that way, losing a friend in the process and risking recapture by the French police and Germans…to find that her four year old brother Michael starved to death after a week minimum of being locked in the cupboard. She was too late. Her brother was gone. Her parents were gone. She had no one left. When I read that part in the book, my husband was watching TV. I didn’t cry but I was making very loud audible gasps that made him turn around in confusion. I could not BELIEVE that that’s where Michael’s and even Sarah’s story ended. After that we have no idea what happens to Sarah other than what Julia uncovers. We no longer get Sarah’s point of view for the rest of the book.
And Bertrand. Dear LORD I wanted to punch this man in the teeth so many times. What a scumbag! When he told Julia he wanted her to get an abortion after YEARS of trying for a second child, after three miscarriages, I wanted to throw the book across the room. What an inconsiderate and heartless JERK! You find out later that he’s going through a mid life crisis and it tries to humanize him, but it comes WAY too late. I already despised him too much. Then you find out that he’s been having a long term affair with a woman that he had cheated on Julia with years ago. This guy….this GUY! Thankfully Julia doesn’t listen to him and leaves the clinic. I was not sorry to see him go.
William Rainsferd, Sarah’s only son all grown up, was a decent character. You understand his trouble accepting all of this awful news about what his mother had endured. She had kept her old life a secret from both him and his father. I will say I’m very glad that him and Julia did not get together in the end, all though it hinted very strongly that that was in their future. Just the fact that both him and Julia got divorced and both ended up in New York was a little cliched for me. I personally think it would have ended very strongly if both him and his wife worked through his pain and uncertainty together. Through sickness and in health and all that jazz. But all in all I enjoyed his character, as little as he was in the book.
Lastly, I was downright depressed when it was revealed that Sarah had actually committed suicide when she was forty. Keeping her old life and the losses she suffered a secret all those years finally took a toll on her. It was just awful that Sarah had to suffer so much. I wished she would have found some form of peace. But life, sadly doesn’t always work out like that.
Zakhor, Al Tichkah. Remember. Never Forget.