In “Sarah’s Key” De Rosnay weaves a magnificent story in both WWII and present day Paris. The dual perspectives of ten-year old Sarah and mid forty Julia blend wonderfully to reveal the devastating and lasting effects of WWII. De Rosnay uses the Vél d’Hiver – the roundup of French Jews by the French authorities – as the backdrop for the descriptive and stunning novel that reads more like nonfiction. De Rosnay’s understanding of the French culture and society both in 1942 and in modern time bring the book to life, and her careful description of Paris could be used to guide one through the city’s streets to follow the events of the Vél d’Hiver.
After July 16, 1942, the date would forever be called Vél d’Hiver. A night when thousands of French men, women, and children, all Jewish, would be removed from their homes by the force of the French authorities following German orders. Sarah and her mother fight against the French officers ordering them from their home only briefly before relenting. In the chaos, Sarah secretly locks her brother in a closet for protection, promising him she will return shortly. Until that night, only Jewish men had been taken by the authorities, which prompted many men to hide. When Sarah and her mother are taken, her father is hiding in the basement, but gives up his safety to join his family as they are being taken away.
Sarah’s belief that she will be returning home is dashed when her family is stuffed inside an arena for several days with thousands of other people without food, water, or working toilets. Sarah and her family will later be crammed inside a cattle car and taken to a concentration camp. First, Sarah’s father is sent to Auschwitz, followed shortly by her mother. Sarah will spend the remainder of the war fighting to stay alive.
Julia is a writer who is moving into an apartment owned by her husband’s family- the very apartment little Sarah was taken from years before. As Julia begins researching the Vél d’Hiver for an article, she discovers how her husband’s family came to rent the apartment and begins a quest to learn more about Sarah. Her search regarding Sarah is thorough and engaging, even though at times it is a little too convenient.
I’m ashamed to say that so many times I picked up this book in the bookstore, only to toss it down again. And I almost didn’t buy this book this time around because of the reviews I read online which really chastised Julia’s character for being weak. Julia puts up with a cad of husband throughout the book, ultimately forcing her to make very difficult decisions. While I agree she isn’t exactly a type A protagonist, her character is charming and works well with the vivid story De Rosnay crafted for her characters.
I’m intentionally being vague in this review because I don’t want to spoil the story, as the plot builds upon itself with each event. I think anyone interested in WWII and the holocaust would find this work of historical fiction just as enthralling as I did. I very highly recommend it.