I will start this review by saying this is one of my absolute favorite books. Is there fault to be found with it? Probably. First of all, it's incredibly sad, so if that isn't your thing, don't read it. Seriously. It will be one of those books you never forget. Second of all, there is no second of all because this book will change your life.
The book includes parallel stories, one during Nazi-occupied Paris and one in present-day Paris, which eventually connect. The modern story, about an American journalist in Paris researching the Vel' d'Hiv, a roundup of Jews in Paris where thousands of men, women, and children were inhumanely imprisoned and then sent to their deaths under the direction of the French police. I found the modern story to be the less interesting of the two stories, probably because I could relate more to the second. Because I am French, I suppose, but also because I am in high school and I have a little brother.
The second story is about Sarah and is told from her perspective. Sarah is one of the children captured during the Vel' d'Hiv roundup, and her young brother is left behind. Being able to see the event through the perspective of a ten-year-old girl gives fresh meaning and humanity to the true horror of what happened. While this is detailed in many fiction and non-fiction novels about the Holocaust, there is something about Sarah's perspective that is emotionally raw, because she simply did not see it coming and does not understand what is happening. The dramatic irony of reading as you know more about her future than she does truly makes you feel sick to your stomach. Her feelings of guilt, anger, and sadness, none of which are her fault, come through in a real way from the perspective of a child.
I did feel that the book got a little less interesting to me once Sarah's story was resolved, because I was less interested in the present-day journalist and her actions. I liked that parallel motifs throughout, tying together Sarah's story with the present day. But I had trouble relating to Julia, the present-day protagonist, only because her struggles seemed so small in comparison to Sarah's story. Your husband making jokes about you, for example, must feel awful and is truly deserving of empathy. But in the setting of Sarah's heart-wrenching and truly maddening story, it is hard not to view Julia's problems as paltry.
I have read Sarah's Key before, but I think this is an important time to read it again. We have all seen the pictures of children in Syria being hurt by bombings, but it's easy to move on from them without connecting them to real emotions. This book helped me to think from those children's perspectives and remember how scared, alone, and unfair they must feel. I think as the rhetoric of the American presidential election grew more hateful and more dismissive of whole groups of people, it's important to be reminded of the humanity of each person, no matter how small, and to see how easily politics can change so that evil is done and no one is empowered to stop it.
Sarah's Key will leave you feeling uneasy and upset, but, as Julia points out about uncovering the story of the Vel' d'Hiv, maybe we owe it to those who suffered to hear, know, and acknowledge their stories.