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Friday, September 23, 2011

BPL Book Discussion: Sarah's Key

On Monday the BPL Book Discussion group met both to have our discussion and say goodbye to long time member Helen as she embarks on a new journey, moving to Tennessee.  So after a fun party with a book shaped cake, we settled in with a VERY large turnout (Helen is much loved) of 18 people to discuss Sarah's Key by Tatiana De Rosnay.
Before I begin with the discussion particulars, I do want to make a comment about the optimal size for a book discussion group.  I always say if you can have 12 people, that is perfect.  18 eager participants was a bit difficult for me to handle.  Thankfully, we all know each other and generally do not have such a large group, but I did spend more time trying to make sure everyone who wanted to talk got their chance and less time trying to help us delve deeper into the book.  Overall, I left dissatisfied with the quality of our discussion.  Others noted this too.  It was not the book though, it was the size of the group. But if it meant Helen got a bigger send-off after 50 years of living in Berwyn, it was worth it.

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.

Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.
Now on to our discussion:
  • As usual we began with liked, disliked, and so-so.  With 18 people we had almost a 50-50 split between liked and so-so. The "why" people moved from liked to so-so came up throughout.
  • Before I get into the specifics of the book, I do want to mention that a few times we did talk about the parallels between the French forgetting the events surrounding the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and the 9/11 10th anniversary coverage.  We talked about how no one thought people would ever forget Pearl Harbor, but they have.  The idea of making sure that horrible atrocities in history are not forgotten is the crux of this novel.  Whether or not you liked the story or how de Rosnay chose to tell it, this central theme is an honorable one.
  • We started with talking about Julia.  Julia dominates the book.  Yes, the story alternates for the first half between her story in 2002 and Sarah's in 1942, but it is Julia who we are with for the long haul. Many were annoyed by Julia.  Her obsession was maddening and we found her a bit selfish, but we all agreed that she grew over time.  Her immaturity was manageable because as she got pregnant, decided to leave her husband, and helped 2 families confront their deep secrets and begin to heal, we saw her growth. 
  • On the other hand, Sarah's story in Sarah's voice was loved by all.  One person said it felt like Anne Frank's Diary. We were riveted by her dilemma and her anguish.  We were also split as to being surprised to find out that Sarah kept her family secret for her entire life, taking it to her grave without passing the truth on to her son.
  • We talked about the style..  We all agreed that the short alternating chapters at the beginning of the book helped to alleviate the difficult story of the roundup of the Jews and the terrible conditions they were put through.  There are some truly terrible descriptions in this novel of what these people were put through; particularly upsetting is the scene of the children being separated from their parents in the French internment camp.  However, de Rosnay's decision to interrupt Sarah's story with Julia's modern day quest to find herself and the truth about that terrible time 60 years before, made it slightly more manageable. It also gave the reader a second to catch her breath and get some perspective on the entire situation.  This is a lot of tragedy to take in all at once here.
  • Some people though felt cheated by the style.  One participant elaborated by saying it felt like a simplistic trick of sensationalism to alternate the stories and stop each with a cliff hanger before going back to the other.
  • The discussion of style led to one about the writing.  People were disappointed with the writing.  One called it "mediocre" while another said "uneven." I reminded the group that the novel was originally written in French, so it could be a translation issue.  But I also suggested that de Rosnay (who is a very successful French novelist) chose to use a more plain style of writing to reflect and enhance Julia's position as a journalist.  They conceded this, but others also noted that they felt too many of the secondary characters were stereotypical.  With this point, I agreed and could not offer a counter opinion.
  • The theme of the destructive power of secrets was discussed at length.  Sarah knows this all too well, as she locks her brother in the cabinet thinking he was safe when the French police came to get them because her parents kept the secret of how bad things truly were for the Jews in Paris.  If she had only knew what was going on, she never would have locked him in what became his death chamber.  She would also have tried harder to escape sooner.  Julia is a journalist whose job it is to uncover secrets.  She uncovers her in-laws secret of their connection to Sarah, a secret which has put a physical distance between the members of their family ever since 1942.  So many secrets, and they all are so destructive.
  • These secrets violate the mantra of all Holocaust memorials which tell us all "To Never Forget."  Unfortunately the French people had forgotten what terrible things they did to their own citizens.  While it may seem too atrocious to discuss, de Rosnay, as a Frenchwoman, took a huge stand by writing this book.  She is vowing "To Never Forget." We admired this.
  • We talked about the importance getting and saving the stories from our veterans of WWII.  But we also understand from reading books like Sarah's Key, that we only get the stories on their terms.  Some things may still be too terrible for them to share with anyone.  It made us wonder about the secrets that are still being held tight, all of these years later.
  • The title was not really discussed since it is fairly obvious.  Sarah carries the key to the cupboard with her for her entire life.  By the end, her son has reclaimed the key along with the family history he never knew about. Also Julia has found the key to living her life by researching Sarah's story.  I think we should assume that it is her key to happiness.  The participants were sad that the title could not be mined for a longer discussion.
  • We talked about Julia's future and specifically if she and Sarah's son William have a romantic future together.  We felt that if nothing else they will be dear friends due to their love of Sarah and her agonizing story.
  • As usual we ended with words or phrases to describe the book:
    • guilt
    • secrets
    • forgiveness
    • never forget
    • shame
    • family
    • illuminating
    • uncomfortable
    • atrocities
    • the camp
    • the key
    • death
    • tragic
    • the truth
Readalikes:  We made a lot of connections to Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise in our discussion.  We read and discussed this novel back in May of 2009.  You can click here for the full report, but both are set in occupied France during the early years of WWII.  The big difference here is that in Suite Francaise was written as the war was happening, while Sarah's Key looks back at the atrocities.  Nemirovsky's prose is also much more lyrical.  That is not a slight on Sarah's Key.  Julia, our narrator, is a journalist and her chapters, which hold the majority to Sarah's are in a more journalistic, "just the facts," style.  Sarah's chapters reflect her child's eye view.

Other WWII books we have discussed here at the BPL that would also work as readlaikes are The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (multiple story lines, exposing hidden atrocities) and The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman (exposing a hidden story of WWII).  The links for each title go back to the post on our discussion.

Obviously, the Holocaust angle works well here as a readalike, but it is not the only direction you could go with this book.  Books with alternating view point, following suffering women in an unfamiliar setting are some of the big appeals here.  For readers who want more of this, I would also suggest Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is a layered story about war, family secrets, and the search for the truth at all costs.  It is a much longer novel, more complex, and lyrical than Sarah's Key, but it is also a popular book discussion title.

Some readers will also want to be directed to nonfiction titles about life in occupied France.  NoveList suggests The Journal of Helene Barr; Barr was a young Jewish girl who lived this story.  I also suggest using this link to learn more about what actually happened during the Velodrome d'Hiver Roundup.


Netherland said...

This is one of the best, yet most disturbing books I have ever read. I have studied the Holocaust at length, and yet this is a story framed around real life events I had never heard of. The story of Sarah and her brother are fictional, yet they are as real as any child you know. By the end of chapter one, you are invested in their story and anxious to hear the two's fate. This is a story that will never leave you. This book is the "Sophie's choice" of the literary world. It speaks to the deepest connections, relationships and truths of the human condition.

TJ Burns said...

Thanks for posting your discussion topics. We are having a book club discussion about Sarah's Key today and I very much appreciated your contribution toward my preparation as host.

I wanted to point out that Sarah's Key was originally written in English, not French as you claim.

"I reminded the group that the novel was originally written in French, so it could be a translation issue. But I also suggested that de Rosnay (who is a very successful French novelist) chose to use a more plain style of writing to reflect and enhance Julia's position as a journalist."

See Tatiana de Rosnay's website:
Q : What language did you originally write Sarah’s Key in and why ?
A : I wrote it in English. I felt that writing about such a sensitive French subject would somehow be easier for me if I used my “English” side, which gave me a certain distance. My father is French, and my mother is British and I grew up in France, USA and UK, learning both languages at the same time. All my previous published work is in French, but since Sarah’s Key, I write in English.