3.5 out of 5 stars
Here is a book that tackles a difficult subject from history, the Vél’ d’Hiv’ roundups of French Jews during WWII, weaving together the story of one of the children of the Vél’ d’Hiv’ with the story of a middle-aged journalist. The shared ground of their lives is the apartment where both have lived, separated by sixty years. Technically the journalist does not ever live in the apartment, her mother-in-law does, but she has been moved to a nursing home, and the apartment is to be renovated by our journalist’s architect husband. Like the author I have a love for old houses and the stories they can tell, and aspects of the plot are well-crafted, but ultimately the novel is flat-footed, and it’s characters lacking spirit.
My first thought after finishing Sarah’s Key was that the ending dragged on far too long. Julia’s continuing obsession with Sarah and her son seemed unrealistic in light of the changes she had made in her life. She had a baby, and made a huge move across the ocean. These were delightful accomplishments, positive mid-life upheavals. So her whining and dark introspection don’t seem to fit.
In fact, Julia never seems to claim her power or sense of self throughout the whole book. First she gives it to her husband and when the marriage ends she seems to wallow in a mild depression. Mild depression may not be the best way to end the book, and the suggested romance between her and William seems a bit contrived to me. We want to see some sort of inner transformation in our characters, but it feels at the end that Julia’s transformations are mostly outer ones.
Of course, this is a book of two stories, and Sarah’s is dark. I felt at times when reading her story that writing about such dark horror is a near-impossible task when you are seeing it through the eyes of a child. I felt great relief when her story shifted away from the camp, and I find it fitting that her narrative stops when she discovers the body of her brother–part of Sarah died at that moment, too, and her remaining story can only be told by those who knew her after that. The journal entry in French, decoded by Julia, was a well-executed plot device.
But Sarah’s story is secondary to Julia’s, and while it’s clear that Sarah’s story has an impact on Julia’s life, it isn’t the pivot that propels her into her new life. The baby does that, and the author tries to connect the baby with Sarah via the date of the abortion, but this seemed contrived to me. It’s as if the plot grinds against itself here, and in its resolution—perhaps a little better writing could have helped these two sections of the book flow a little better.
I guess that would be my main criticism of the book—the writing lacked luster and power. The story has a lot of potential, and Sarah’s story, which seems more carefully wrought than Julia’s, is historically important. I would have liked to have seen more emphasis and imaginative writing about the apartment and the key—these are the two physical objects that connect the past to the present. One is the title of the book, but it’s appearance is very limited. It’s also such an archetypal image—a key—and the author could have worked with it a lot more, maybe bringing it into the ending somehow. It is, after all, in William’s possession.
In the end, Julia names her daughter Sarah: “An echo to the other one, to the other Sarah, to the little girl with the yellow star who had changed my life.” But it is exactly that change that I don’t feel. I felt the friction in her marriage, and I see that her life has changed, but how exactly did Sarah change her? I just don’t feel that transformation.
Up next: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery