Sunday, 19 January 2014

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Let me try to explain why I didn't like this book very much. I believe one of the sales quotes on the back of the book can help me communicate why. Keep in mind that this is, at least in part, a book about French complicity in the Holocaust:

"Sarah's Key unlocks the star-crossed, heart-thumping story of an American journalist in Paris and the sixty-year-old secret that could destroy her marriage."

And that, unfortunately, is how the story reads sometimes. Not all the time, but there is a good deal of the book where it feels like the rounding up of Jews in Paris and their subsequent journeys to Auschwitz are mostly important for the strain it puts on an American journalist 60 years later, and how it affects her marriage.

Now, if this were more sensitively written, if that were the story, how researching trauma can alter a person and have a deep and lasting impact on themselves and their lives, that would be extremely interesting. This is not that book. This is the book where the American journalist is, at least at the beginning, the only one who cares about this atrocity, and all the French are, to put it lightly, assholes. A few become less assholish, the rest, from her husband, to some of her in-laws, remain these caricatures of French asshattery.

She cares, you see! They don't! They just want to ignore it! (If this book had explored the reasons why people have a hard time acknowledging trauma, that would also have been extremely interesting. Do we see a pattern here? If this book had...if, if, if. But it doesn't.)

It also has annoyingly short James-Patterson-style chapters. Why? They flip back and forth between the present and World War II. But we're not given enough time in either time period to really get invested. I just really hate the extremely short two-to-four page chapter thing that Patterson made so popular. I can see the occasionally short chapter thrown in for emphasis, but when the whole book is like that, it's choppy.

And it's irritating, because some of her material about the past is actually quite affecting. But then we jump away to the annoying story of Julia and her asshole husband who has been cheating on her for years, treats her like shit, and doesn't want her to have a baby. This story has no depth, the characters are almost cartoonishly evil or good. Sarah's actual story is heartbreaking, but it's undercut because it keeps being important because of its impact on Julia, and this is not dealt with well or with real understanding.

There are a lot of places where this could have been a better book. But I was very disappointed.