Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Tatiana de Rosnay was another one of those authors to appear at work, her very presence apparently summoning every Baby Boomer and Generation X-er to our auditorium. Book clubs, a small group of friends, alone—they came, consumed tiny croissants and listened to the author of Sarah’s Key.

De Rosnay is a tall woman, elegant in silvery hair, her French accent rolling over sounds in English that sound superfluous when she says them. She’s an enthralling speaker, like a voice stemming from a culture centuries older than ours. I wish I could read French because I have to believe that when she writes in her native tongue, she reads how she speaks. Unfortunately, she chose to write this book in English.

Before I get into this in earnest, I have to say that de Rosnay tells a story in Sarah’s Key that I had never heard before. I had known that the French Vichy government had collaborated with the Nazis, but I was never told the extent to which they had carried out orders. In the summer of 1942, French police gather Jews in the Vel d’Hiv, a stadium in Paris. Among these Jews were 4,000 children. Kept for days with little to no food or water, all were to French satellite camps and then off to Auschwitz for extermination. Few survived. De Rosnay’s novel follows a little Jewish girl who experienced the Vel d’Hiv and holds a terrible secret, as well as a modern-day American journalist struggling to bring the story to light.

My issue is not with the story (though the modern storyline seemed shallow and a little self-righteous), it was the writing. As I mentioned before, I wish I could read French, for I believe that de Rosnay must have a better style in her native tongue. Her English makes the characters too shallow and the dialogue is peppered with Americanisms that sound shoved it, as if trying to demonstrate a familiarity with American lingo. I found it all distracting, to the detriment of a story that could have been quite compelling. It makes me sadder to say that her dictated interview in the supplementary chapters of the books brings back all of the elegance of her speaking voice with none of the ridiculousness of her writing style.

I can’t tell you not to read the book because I think the story is incredibly important. However, I can say that the tale suffers in the writing, which is a tragedy.

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