ELR Book Nerd Club: Sarah’s Key

by jenna on July 28, 2010

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I have to say, out of all the ELR Book Nerd Club books, I was most excited to discuss this one! I read Sarah’s Key almost two years ago and it has stuck with me all this time as one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Here’s a brief synopsis from Amazon.com to jog your memory if it’s been awhile:

“De Rosnay’s U.S. debut fictionalizes the 1942 Paris roundups and deportations, in which thousands of Jewish families were arrested, held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver outside the city, then transported to Auschwitz. Forty-five-year-old Julia Jarmond, American by birth, moved to Paris when she was 20 and is married to the arrogant, unfaithful Bertrand Tézac, with whom she has an 11-year-old daughter. Julia writes for an American magazine and her editor assigns her to cover the 60th anniversary of the Vél’ d’Hiv’ roundups. Julia soon learns that the apartment she and Bertrand plan to move into was acquired by Bertrand’s family when its Jewish occupants were dispossessed and deported 60 years before. She resolves to find out what happened to the former occupants: Wladyslaw and Rywka Starzynski, parents of 10-year-old Sarah and four-year-old Michel. The more Julia discovers—especially about Sarah, the only member of the Starzynski family to survive—the more she uncovers about Bertrand’s family, about France and, finally, herself. Already translated into 15 languages, the novel is De Rosnay’s 10th (but her first written in English, her first language). It beautifully conveys Julia’s conflicting loyalties, and makes Sarah’s trials so riveting, her innocence so absorbing, that the book is hard to put down.” (source)

I think the reason I loved this book so much was because I have such a heart for historical fiction. It’s always been my favorite genre and I especially love novels about World War II. I even did my senior portfolio project on adolescent books on the Holocaust (a 70 page thesis-like project).

Here are some discussion questions on Sarah’s Key. Feel free to chime in and say what you like or didn’t like about the novel as well.

1. Sarah’s Key is composed of two different storylines—Sarah’s and Julia’s. Did you like the way this was set up or did you prefer one story over the other?

2. What do you think the major theme of the novel is and how does the element of mystery weave into that?

3. If you were a high school English teacher (and I know some of you are–way to go!), how would you feel about teaching this book to a class of high school seniors?

4. What was the biggest lesson that you took away from reading this?

No right or wrong answers—if you have read this, I urge you to participate. And if you haven’t read this, you should!

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Winner of the granola!

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Grace, please email your mailing address to jenna [at] eatliverun.com and I’ll get your granola out today!

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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah (Running to Slow Things Down) July 28, 2010 at 11:07 am

I loved this book! I literally cried my way through it.

I liked the way the book was set up, but I would have loved to hear more about Sarah’s side of the story when she was older, as a mother, vs. as much discussion about Julia and her life.

I also kind of didn’t really like the ending, not to be nit-picky or anything. The divorce was sudden and unneeded, in my opinion and it just felt “unreal.”

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Kacy July 28, 2010 at 11:22 am

I kind of agree with this. I don’t think the divorce situation was developed very well. But it’s only a minor thing and didn’t make me love the book any less.

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Amanda (Two Boos Who Eat) July 28, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Totally agree with this comment.

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sarah k. @ the pajama chef July 28, 2010 at 6:57 pm

that’s what i thought too! it was just disappointing.

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Kacy July 28, 2010 at 11:19 am

I read Sarah’s Key from your recommendation and loved it. I even came home one night after some wine with friends and “drunk read” it. Seriously. I couldn’t stop.

That said, I really loved the way the two stories intertwined at the beginning of the book. It was so suspenseful, but I found that I cared about each character’s story equally. However, I didn’t really like the way that Sarah’s story was cut so abruptly short. I felt like it would have been so much more powerful to have seen it through to the end. I understand why she probably cut it short, but as a reader I wanted more.

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Catherine July 28, 2010 at 11:19 am

I keep seeing this book everywhere, bookstores, airports, etc. I’ll have to pick it up!!
If you enjoy historical fiction, you may also like The Postmistress. It had a bit of a slower start for me, but it really picks up speed after the second or third chapter. I just finished it recently, let me know if you’d like me to send it to you!

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caitlin July 28, 2010 at 11:20 am

1. Sarah’s Key is composed of two different storylines—Sarah’s and Julia’s. Did you like the way this was set up or did you prefer one story over the other?

I really loved the way the story was set up, and they way the related to each other even though they were separated by 50 years.

2. What do you think the major theme of the novel is and how does the element of mystery weave into that?

I think the major theme of the novel is dealing with death, whether the death is literal (Sarah’s brother) or metaphorical (Julia’s marriage). And then, of course, the second theme is rebirth, or finding yourself in the aftermath of death.

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Espie July 28, 2010 at 11:23 am

1. I really enjoy when authors use two different storylines to tell a story. It gets me to read the book faster because I want to find out what happens with the other character. I think this allows the author to be more creative and paint a better picture for the reader. (reminds me of Poisonwood…)

2. Aside from “key secrets” in the book. I think a major theme is family and determination. Both protagonists were so passionate about their family (more specifically- certain members). They pretty much stopped just short of killing themselves over fighting for their respective loved ones.

3. I’m not an English teacher but would be interested to learn how adolescents would react to the different scenes in this book. I think it would have to be an Honors class since the descriptions might be pretty heavy for some people.

4. The biggest lesson? Use the gut-wrenching urge inside of me to pursue what I believe in. Also, know and don’t be afraid of your history.

BTW… I was fascinated by how the author portrayed an American journalist (since de Rosnay is not American). I can imagine that Julia’s characteristics, emotion and passion would’ve have been drastically different had she been from a different country. Great perspective!

Fantastic book!

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Michaela December 1, 2010 at 4:09 pm

I am an adolescent and I just finished reading Sarah’s Key. I found this book to be an amazing piece of literature. I can see how some of the other students in my class may have taken this differently than I have, but I am one of the more mature teenagers around today. My class was not an Honors Class, however all of the students who chose to read this book for their literary circle book were an honor student.

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Heather (Heather's Dish) July 28, 2010 at 11:25 am

you know, i haven’t read this yet and i really wish i had so i could participate! lesson learned…

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Mellissa July 28, 2010 at 11:29 am

This is one of my favorite books. I love books that have prominent multiple characters and that go back and forth from each point of view.

The general theme to me is about acceptance and tolerance and being aware of the situations around both in present time and of history. It was interesting to read about Paris during World War II and how little I knew about that situation.

I think this book should be on every school list, so many real themes that student deal with.

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Kacy July 28, 2010 at 11:30 am

It seems that the major theme is grief – how do you go on living when something so horrible has happened. Both women have to choose to carry on (for one it proves to be too much, but she tries for most of her life to overcome it) and live life as though it wasn’t gruesome and unbearable. It was very powerful to read.

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jenna July 28, 2010 at 11:38 am

well said, Kacy! I definitely agree with you about grief being a major theme. I found it very interesting to read about how both women found strength within to carry on with their lives despite hardships. There’s a great lesson in that.

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Melissa July 28, 2010 at 11:33 am

I absolutely loved this book but agree with someone above – I would have loved to know more about what happened to Sarah. I felt so attached to her and wish I could have learned more about her years in the states. It made me so so sad what happened to her in the end – especially after all she survived. So I’d say Sarah’s story was my favorite.

I’m Jewish, so I grew up learning about the Holocaust from a very very young age. I’ve met many survivors over the years and feel so fortunate for that since our generation is the last generation that will get to meet them. I feel very strongly that books like this one (historical fiction books about the Holocaust) should be read by high school seniors…and children younger. It’s a terrifying topic and very difficult to learn about, but when taught the correct way, is an amazing and necessary way to make sure something like this never happens again. The Holocaust was caused very much by a chain of events that occurred because people were too scared to question authority and therefore turned the other way.

Holocaust museums have been built, books have been written and survivors’ stories have been recorded so something like this never ever happens again – to any group of people. It is such an important part of our very recent to learn.

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Melissa July 28, 2010 at 11:35 am

**It is such an important part of our very recent HISTORY to learn about.

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Kat (My Fruity Life) July 28, 2010 at 11:53 am

I have not read this book but wrote it down to find the next time I go to the library. I just wanted to tell you I love all your recommendations and am slowly getting thru the list of books I’ve written down…I went to get the The Glass Castle the other day and it was checked out, but I found Jeannette Walls first book, Half Broke Horses and got that one. I have a feeling its going to be one of the best books I’ve ever read. :)

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Deirdre July 28, 2010 at 11:54 am

I read this book a month ago and I really liked it. I feel like a major theme of the book is guilt. The guilt that Sarah feels for leaving her brother behind and what happens to him. The guilt Sarah has when she moves to the States and tries to repress such a key period of her life. The guilt Julia feels for exposing so many of her in-laws secrets. The guilt Julia’s father in law had for the day when Sarah returns and they open the cupboard and the guilt he has for living in Sarah’s family home. And finally the guilt so many French people felt for not doing anything when they saw all these Jewish people being round up.
I had a French teacher in high school who was a little girl during the roundups (not in Paris but in a small town) and she told us how she still had nightmares and visions of the roundups and she could still hear the children’s screams.
Like you Jenna, I have always enjoyed historical fiction. I have always felt that we most truly understand and learn history even horrible events like the Holocaust in order to prevent such things from ever happening in the future.

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Lina@GreenLivingNY July 28, 2010 at 12:03 pm

The book was just so-so! I had bigger expectations, the story itself is great, the whole idea was phenomenal and also made me cry, but I don’t think I liked how it was “set up” and like many other still son’t see the point of the dovorce, and I think more information about Sarah was needed, but overall it is a great book, and it shows us what pain people went thru, be more friendly and appreciate the life that we have now!

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Anna April 5, 2011 at 3:56 pm

I think the whole point of the divorce was that her husband was cheating on her and was a complete jerk.

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Lucy July 28, 2010 at 12:09 pm

**Spoiler Alerts ahead just in case you haven’t read the book:)**
I really liked Sarah’s storyline and I was sad when it ended. I did like how the two stories jumped back and forth for the first half of the book but agree with several other readers that the second half of the book was a letdown. I felt the author just kind of threw together a bunch of random stuff to make up the second half and brought in characters (ie. Sarah’s son) who we didn’t know and weren’t invested in, thus making me feel less connected with their pain and story. Then, jumping from France to NYC to Italy (??) and then back to France and NYC it just got confusing. Plus, the divorce, by the end of the book I kind of forgot how powerful the first part was. However, I could truly feel Sarah’s pain up until the part where her character’s voice got cut off and that part I did enjoy!

I think grief and loss are the major themes. In Sarah’s case she seemed to have a few happy years but was never able to find true happiness, whereas I finished the book thinking Julia had hope for the future.

I might include this book in addition to some other books about the war, but I felt the second half of the book took away from it’s strength. If I did teach it, I would make sure to discuss with the students the nature of the topic and the sensitivity to what the people went through.

Thanks for having this book club!! It’s fun to hear what everyone thinks:)

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Sara Palacios July 28, 2010 at 12:09 pm

I actually chose this book for my book club about a year ago.

It was one of few books that all of the ladies agreed on. It was a great read…very heart wrenching learning about Sarah and her family and what they went through during WWII.

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Renee July 28, 2010 at 12:12 pm

This is truly one of my favorite books – like you, I’m strangely fascinated by historical fiction, especially WWII! Have you read The Zookeeper’s Wife? I recommend that one as well.

I think loss, and how the characters dealt with loss, was a major theme in the book. Sarah lost her parents, then her brother. Julia lost her husband, as well as the faith and belief she had about her husbands family and France.

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Nike July 28, 2010 at 12:13 pm

I just finished reading this book last week and I think it will stick with me for a very long time. I, too, love historical fiction and have tried to learn about the Holocaust as much as I can. I was unaware of this event in history and ended up feeling much like Julia – I am so sorry I didn’t know.

I enjoyed having the two story lines because it made the effects of the past tangible – as well as serve as a warning of not honoring/remembering the past.

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Jen July 28, 2010 at 12:19 pm

1. I loved the intertwined stories, for sure. I know she left off Sarah’s story when she did so that we would all be in suspense, along with Julia, so I didn’t mind it ending when it did. However, reading other’s comments definitely makes me think that it would have been neat to hear how things went from her perspective as the years went on.
2. Honestly: I have always been terrible at picking out the themes of books. I LOVE to read (in fact, I’ve read American Wife and Prep, plus Sarah’s Key and My Antonia since you told us to read them! And I’ve read many more books also) but for some reason I have a hard time with themes. So I’ll let other people speak up on this one!
3. It would be so interesting to teach this to high school kids. As the folks who actually lived through World War Two are dying off, it’s important to keep the younger generations connected to their history. As we know, history repeats itself, and the events of the Holocaust are something we never, ever want repeated. I didn’t even know that event had taken place in France until I read this, and it was a great thing to learn about.
4. Biggest lesson: Go with your heart, go with your gut. Follow through until the end.

Jenna, have you read The Guersey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? Also takes place in WWII and has so much to do with reading!

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jenna July 28, 2010 at 1:05 pm

I haven’t read those—I’ll add them to my library list!

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Caroline July 28, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Honestly, I wanted to like this book, but I ultimately didn’t. I thought Sarah’s story was far more compelling than Julia’s, and I thought that Sarah’s story coupled with the use of a poorly-known event in history were the only redeeming factors of this book. I despised Julia, as I found her to be childish and annoying. I also found de Rosnay’s prose and plotting to be trite and juvenile. The ending was pat and predictable, Zoe was the world’s most unbelievable adolescent, and I *hated* de Rosnay’s constant use of adverbs when writing about speech – e.g. “She said tensely”, “He spoke coldly”, that sort of thing.
However, I do feel strongly about the teaching of Holocaust literature in schools. I think there would be better vehicles for this lesson, such as The Diary of Ann Frank (duh), How Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Number The Stars, or, for older readers, perhaps Skeletons for The Feast by Chris Bohjalian? Or, you know, everyone could watch Life is Beautiful – that movie broke my heart when we watched it in middle school, I cried in class!
In summary, I wasn’t crazy about the book, but I appreciate the topic! Does that make sense?

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Rebecca Hoover July 31, 2010 at 9:30 am

Thank you, you have described my feelings perfectly. I was very disappointed with the writing style, it really ruined the book for me. It could have been such a great book but I just couldn’t get past the author’s poor writing skills.

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Meg July 28, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Yes, I LOVED this book! I definitely loved how the story lines intertwined. I liked this book partially because it was set during WWII which is a period that really interests me. The biggest lesson I learned from it is that we truly need to be reminded of the horrible mistakes that were made in history so that we never make them again. I think I’m going to have to go back and read it again now!

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Amanda (Two Boos Who Eat) July 28, 2010 at 3:28 pm

I read this book awhile ago and loved it for the most part. I just felt a little underwhelmed after awhile.

As a future English teacher, I would love to use a book like this in my classroom. I foresee a lot of discussion about historical fiction and it’s place in society.

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Meredith (Pursuing Balance) July 28, 2010 at 3:38 pm

I love this book! I actually read it after you mentioned it on the blog quite a while ago. I enjoyed the different perspectives in the book. As a Jewish reader, I feel very connected to the story line. I literally could not put this book down. Great read!

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Rachel @ Balance and Blueberries July 28, 2010 at 3:47 pm

I loved the way that the two story lines were woven together. I think the fact that Sarah’s story was so abruptly cut short added to the intrigue of the book. As you read, you’re wondering along with Julia what happened to Sarah, where she is, and who she became.

Thanks for the great recommendation!

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Janice July 28, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Oh I have walked past this book SEVERAL times and wanted to buy it – now I will!!!
I love reading the history of this time period- sad but VERY Important we remember and respect what the Jewish people went through. And I love a good read!

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Erin July 28, 2010 at 5:38 pm

I got this book for Christmas last year and couldn’t put it down! It was an event I’d honestly never heard about so it was fascinating to read. I especially was interested in the intertwining of the past and the present and the reveal of what happened to the brother was just… too horrifying for words.

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sarah k. @ the pajama chef July 28, 2010 at 7:00 pm

i’ve always enjoyed historical fiction, esp. about the holocaust. i think this one really got to me though, maybe because my name is sarah too, but maybe also because it was set in france and alot of other holocaust stories/memoirs are set in other european countries. anyway, pain really stood out to me in this book. pain experienced by sarah, and pain experienced by julia with her children/husband. so sad…on both counts. i agree with others- people need to experience these books to learn for the future.

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Emily July 28, 2010 at 7:52 pm

This has been the best book I’ve ever read- I know, risky to say that, since I’m a huge reader- but yes, best book EVER. I loved Julia and just couldn’t stop thinking about MY little brother that could’ve been in the closest. Poor Sarah.

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megan July 29, 2010 at 7:42 am

I actually wasn’t a huge fan of this book. The first half was definitely compelling, but then Sarah’s story just cut off. I think it made the book less strong – we didn’t get to see our main character work through the grief, the pain, etc. we were left hanging only to find out later that she didn’t work through it at all. Great recommendation though Jenna!

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Shannon Fox July 29, 2010 at 7:54 am

I hadn’t read Sarah’s Key until yesterday. When I saw your post about the book, I was intrigued and requested it from the library. I started it last night at 11:30P, and did not stop reading until 3:30ishA. Then I cried until 4:30. Obviously it was compelling or I wouldn’t have stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to finish it, but I can also say without intentional dramatics that it will haunt me all the rest of my days. As a 33 year old who’s dealt with more than her fair share of tragedy, I usually try to stick to lighter fare. I like happy endings. I wanted to hate this book for it’s horrifying images and harsh dose of reality. I wanted to scream at the author for the grotesque images of little four year bodies decayed in cupboards floating through my mind (Along with my 8 yr old, and 2 yr old, I have a 4 year old boy, and I could only picture his sweet little face in that cupboard). I wanted to tell her that she was a little over the top with all of the depressing gory details. But ultimately, I know she was not. I had never heard of Vel d’Hiv when I cracked that book open. Now, less than 12 hours later, it will never, ever leave me. Mission accomplished, Tatiana. I might not have liked the journey over much, but I know I’m better for it.

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Melissa July 29, 2010 at 10:16 am

Loved this book..
As a teacher (I teach math, but have taught Literacy at certain points.. my mom presently teaches 8th grade where they have a whole unit on the Holocaust), I feel like this book would be a huge eye opener for some teens. I think that it really creates vivid imagery as well as great topics for class conversation. I also think you would definitely need a very mature class due to the touchy subject. As an adult, I found some parts really difficult to read, however I really wanted to see how the two stories came together. I’m presently reading “The Book Thief” which is also about the Holocaust, so I’ll have to let you know how that is.

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Kieran July 29, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Couldn’t have said it better about loving historical fiction, especially WWII. My bookshelves speak for themselves! Thanks for the recommendation!!

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Katelynn August 2, 2010 at 11:34 am

I just got this book on Saturday and have had a difficult time putting it down ever since. Is it bad when you are excited to go home after a night out to read a book? haha Anyway, thank you for the recommendation. From the first few pages the book moves you.

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Kelley August 4, 2010 at 2:02 pm

I read this book faster than I’ve read one in years. I love books with short chapters because it’s so easy to keep turning the page: “just one more, just one more!”

I know it was implied, but do you think Julia married Sarah’s son?

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Kelley August 4, 2010 at 2:03 pm

PS. I agree with Caroline above… the writing style was pretty amateur, but I tried to ignore it.

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Zumani Monet October 15, 2011 at 10:52 am

I teach an upper intermediate ESL class. I think this book would be a great read for my students. Can I buy this book by the bulk?

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