Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

photo: cover of French version, second edition, from the book's Wikipedia page

Very effective book--about the French populace not recognizing the culpability of the French police being the Nazi's stooges in 1942--that would have been great without the emphasis on the present-day relationship struggles and the moralizing/browbeating by the author, through the main character.  Though the real incidents portrayed via Sarah were real and horrifying, there isn't too much room for moralizing and browbeating in fiction.  I could've taken quite a bit of that, as it is that warranted, but this book crosses the line and becomes a bit of a soapbox.

Having said that, this book is worth the read just for the scenes with Sarah, culminating upon her return to her apartment--though, really, culminating with a car and a tree in Connecticut.  The tragedy of the tragedy ends with that car and tree, as we want our victims to live long and prosper.  That doesn't happen too often in real life, and it doesn't happen here, and the tragedy is multiplied because of that, and because of the reasons behind the suicide.  You never want the victim of unspeakable horrors to commit suicide, but the reality is that they often do.  All of this is very sad, and it will stay with you, whether you want it to or not.  Sarah's character will be a long-lasting one in the world of fiction, and Sarah's key is one of the better metaphors and symbols to come along in a long time.  In fact, as such, it is shockingly underused in the book.

That the book focuses instead on the relationship between the main character and her husband is an author's mistake, I think, that is further highlighted by her comment in an interview at the back of the book that she did not want to write a book of historical fiction.  Her aim was to include a bit of that, but to focus instead on creating a parallel to a modern-day relationship and its problems.  It is this parallel, unfortunately, that very much doesn't work.  You expect them to cris-cross at some point, and of course they do, but when they do, the moralizing starts, which degrades the effect of the tragedy.  Part of the tragedy, in fact, is that the tragedy was largely ignored.  It needed to stay tragic, rather than become fodder for a soapbox.

This failure with the parallel--and, I think, a failure on the author's rationale, as she states in the interview at the end that she thinks her readers want a book more about relationship struggles (and, hell, maybe they do, though this reader doesn't)--is that it counts too much on that moralizing, and on over-sentimentality, and on a large dose of coincidence.  The main character's marriage ends in divorce, it is said, because the husband couldn't handle her devotion to the tragedy, and to her unborn baby (though the marriage was actually in trouble long before that, and one supposes that the husband would've had a problem with her focusing her attention on anything and anyone at all but him, and he was cheating on her for many years even before the timeline for this novel started); another man's marriage falls apart because his wife couldn't handle his preoccupation with the same thing--even though Sarah was this man's mother, so he had a much better reason for his preoccupation.  Anyway, the main character and this man, separately, move to NYC after the failure of their marriages, and they both think about each other and keep track of each other without letting on to the other.  They fall for each other right away, though the man was also upset with her, and his marriage was fine at the time.  That they get together at the end, and the name that she gives her new daughter, will not surprise even a six year old reader, especially since the main character goes out of her way, several times, to narrate how beautiful this man's fingers and hands are...

...sigh...It becomes Schindler's List Meets Sleepless in Seattle.  I do not exaggerate.  (Well, perhaps a little.)

Could've been an outstanding book had the author book-ended the main story with the suicide, perhaps, or otherwise focused more on that.  Focusing the entire second half of the book on the aforementioned things, rather than on Sarah at all, or on the tragedies in her childhood, and then at the end of her life, actually degrades the real-life tragedy and drags the whole thing into quasi-sappy melodrama.

Sarah deserved a LOT better than that.  Sarah, in fact, transcends the trappings of this novel she's trapped in, and will live within you, outside the rather narrow confines of this book's borders.  She's a character, much like Shakespeare's Juliet, that is superior to the work she's placed in.  You'll be grateful, though, that the book exists as a vehicle for her to be born in, and then to survive and surpass.

For a look at a movie review from the New York Times that agrees with my assessment of the book the movie's based on, go to  Its final word is the same as mine, in terms of the essential fault of the book and film: both stories couldn't co-exist in the same vehicle, and the one about the pitfalls of today's relationships trivializes the truth and tragedy of the horror that really did happen in Paris, France in July, 1942.

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