Oh, this is a difficult book to describe and talk about.
Sarah's Key is a heartbreaking, beautiful, gruesome, profoundly sad story. But not perfectly so.
Sarah is a young Jewish girl dragged from her home in Paris in the July, 1942 "roundup" of Jews, carried out by French police. Sarah is fictional, the "Velodrome d'Hiver roundup" was real. Named for the place the Jews were kept before being moved to concentration camps, it is another sad bit of history that I'd never heard about. Apparently not many people have.
Julia Jarmond is also fictional, an American journalist living in Paris, assigned to cover the "Vel d'Hiv" in anticipation of the 60th anniversary of the event. As she learns about the event, she learns about Sarah, and then wants to learn more... and begins a search for more information and for the girl herself. Soon, she finds herself linked with Sarah in a way she would never have expected.
The book alternates chapters between Sarah's story and Julia's. Oddly, the "voice" telling Sarah's story was much more compelling than that of Julia's. I read impatiently through Julia's chapters to get back to Sarah. At one point, Sarah's separate story disappears, and we are left to learn it through Julia's. I found this somewhat diminishing to Sarah's story - even though the search for Sarah is still the centerpiece of the book. Near the story's end, when it was all about Julia, it read more like (as one review I read put it) "chick-lit" and not a serious story about a serious subject anymore. It was almost - not quite - just another story of a woman's dysfunctional life, full of her personal problems that seem quite banal when compared with Sarah's.
There are a lot of coincidences in this story that might make it unbelievable. But, I've seen enough such occurences in real life that it all seemed quite believable to me - there are no coincidences. There are many surprises, and yet predictable moments too.
But Sarah's story is so intriguing and important that these problems don't really matter. The story of the girl is what matters, because though she is not real and the exact things that happened to her are not historical fact, there surely were girls like her, living lives very like her life.
This is such important history, history that is in danger of being forgotten, or, worse, denied. It is a book that should make us think: How I would respond to such an event as the Vel d'Hiv roundup? Would I risk my life to help someone, or someone's child? Or would I just turn away as so many did? Were they wrong to turn away, to protect themselves? What if my family was one of the ones in need? How would I feel to see people turn away from our suffering? Are we so complacent that we think this could never happen again, or isn't happening somewhere now?
This is why I keep reading Holocaust stories now. I used to avoid them. They were so painful, so hopeless, and from a time of which I had no understanding. I'm starting to understand more now, and I want to know more. Because we must never forget.