This isn’t the first book I’ve ever disliked, obviously, but it’s the first one that I’ve ever blogged about disliking. And I’m not great at criticizing or being constructive, so it might come off as a rant. I’m going to try my best though. I finished book #14, a book I started with high hopes because of the “International Bestselling Novel” label on the cover. It was Sarah’s Key, written by Tatiana De Rosnay.
It wasn’t like the book was bad. Frustrating is the best word I can come up with, because the story really was crazy and I know I’ll remember it for a long time. It was just the writing, and the characters, and the trying-too-hard, maybe. See, I sound mean. Sorry, Tatiana.
The novel was this historical fiction based on true events, and also mixed with a present-day storyline that inevitably intertwined with the historical storyline as it unfolded. I guess I felt like the ficitonalized historical story had a more-than-sturdy leg to stand on, without throwing in a 60-year-later story about a middle age woman coming to terms with her tumultuous, failing marriage alongside her revelations about an historical Parisian tragedy.
The novel revolves around the Vel’ d’Hiv’, which actually happened and was disturbing and insane. It happened in Paris in the summer of 1942, in the midst of World War II. Basically, French policemen were ordered to (and followed the orders to) round up a majority of the Jewish population living in Paris. They were held captive with no explanation, safety, or adequate food and water for a period of time, and then families were separated and shipped to Auschwitz where, of course, none survived.
The main (and powerful) historic fictional character who survived the Vel’ d’Hiv’ was Sarah. The book offers her perspective in a few of the chapters, and the reader sees her struggling with an inner demon about not only being separated from her family and not knowing what was happening to them, but also a potentially fatal choice that she had made in a spur of the moment decision to try and save her 4-year-old brother.
This part of the novel interested me the most, and the way that the Parisians of the modern-day-storyline were reluctant to remember the tragedy, because it would mean to remember that French authority had a hand in the genocide of an entire group of people. I think of concentration camps, and I tend to put the face of a Nazi soldier on the leaders of that brutality. It’s sort of jarring to consider that members of authority from all nationalities could have been and were influenced to contribute to the murder of their own people.
So. Write about that. I had never heard about it, and it’s a tragedy worth sharing. The book could have stuck to that and I would have loved it, in the way that one loves reading about horrifying history. For me personally, the present-day storyline didn’t add anything. I found the characters, especially, to be one dimensional and unrealistic. The main woman, Julia, was often helpless and acted like a child, but then inexplicably harsh in other situations. She also had an 11-year-old daughter who acted like a 50-year-old woman. And yet, neither of them ever felt it necessary to stand up to the verbally abusive, cheating French husband and father, respectively.
All of those complicated, unbelievable details taking place in the present-day storyline distracted from what made the novel compelling in the first place: the tragedy in Paris and Sarah, coping with all of her losses and the sudden upheaval of her entire, young life. Obviously people liked it, and there are a lot of positive reviews. What most frustrates me about some books is the potential of their story, and how easy that story can fall short or fall flat (to me personally, I will speak for no one else) if it isn’t written by the strongest author.
That sounds mean, but it’s how I feel. There was potential, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. Oh, well. ◊