This book's reputation definitely preceded itself. I've been hearing about it since it was published in 2007, friends kept asking me if I'd read it yet, and insisting I must do so NOW. I was pretty excited when it was my book club's selection for February, and even more excited to find that my library had the audio.
The story alternates between 2002 and 1942. In 2002, our narrator is Julia Jarmond, an American living with her arrogant, cheating French husband and daughter in Paris. She's not in a great place with her marriage, but doesn't spend much time worrying about it as she races through her life as a journalist and a mother. She has been assigned the task of covering the 60th anniversary of a particular Parisian Jewish round-up during WWII, in which thousands of men, women and children were arrested by the French police and ultimately sent to their deaths. While doing her research, she realizes that her husband's grandmother's present day apartment was formerly the home of one of these Jewish families. Julia becomes intrigued with the story of Sarah, the little girl who lived there, and her fate. The answers she uncovers is utterly devastating. It re-opens old wounds within her husband's family, forces Julia to do a little self-examination, and changes her life forever.
In 1942, we walk in the shoes of little Sarah, learning about the events that took place on that fateful day in July of 1942, when she was 10 years old. It doesn't take much imagination to anticipate the events to follow. Sarah, however, is a remarkable little girl, and through her eyes we fully appreciate her struggle to find bravery deep inside herself and never let go of hope.
It is not much of a shocker to know that this book is simply a two-ton truck in the form of words, that will break your heart and run you over before you can even prepare yourself. The heart and soul of this novel is Sarah. It is her story that fuels the plot, brings tears to your eyes, and prevents you from laying down the book. I was much less intrigued with Julia, and although I liked her, her life was much less compelling. Sarah's story ends about halfway through the book, the rest being dedicated to Julia's life after all is revealed. It was slightly anti-climatic and as a result, lost some steam.
The fluctuation between past and present is particularly effective, deftly weaving the two stories together. Julia researches Sarah's life in one chapter, then the next chapter we are experiencing the events of the past as they happened. As I said above, I was more invested in Sarah than Julia, so I did experience some swings of momentum from chapter to chapter. Because of the gut-wrenching emotion in Sarah's chapters, I suppose it made the journey a little more bearable.
With the exception of one critical incident in Sarah's life, I found the book to be extremely predictable. Nothing surprised me. In fact, about halfway through the book, I knew, almost down to the letter, how it would end. Not that it is wrapped up neatly and happily...it was not. The writing was smooth and the story grabbed me by the heart and squeezed, so I can forgive this I think.
Historically, I loved the insight into the French society during WWII. Their active involvement in the persecution of the Jews, the shame of it years later, and the individuals who dared to defy authority to make a small difference.
Do I seem a little bi-polar with my opinions on this read? That is because I am not altogether sure how I feel. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but there were enough small faults that kept me from loving it. Here is what the book club had to say:
The book club, as a whole, loved the book. After some discussion, they all did admit they preferred Sarah's voice over Julia's and felt more could have been done to enhance the ending. None of the club members have had much experience with WWII fiction (unlike me, who is just a tad over-obsessed) so they were blown away by France's involvement in the persecution of the Jews and seemed to have been affected more by the plot. They felt that it was easy to read, and difficult to put down. I would gauge their reaction to perhaps a 4.5 out of 5.
4 out of 5 stars