My 14-year-old son has to read this book for school this fall, and so I went to the library to check out a copy for him of the Dutch translation. When I saw the library also had a copy of the original English version, I decided to check it out for myself and read along with him.
I remembered hearing that this was a good book, and it was made into a movie with Kristin Scott Thomas in 2010. The book takes place in Paris and the chapters alternate between 1942 and 2002. The 1942 portion of the book follows a young Jewish girl, Sarah, as her family is rounded up by the French police in the most notorious act of French collaboration with the Nazis. Thousands of Jewish men, women and children are taken to the Velodrome d'Hiver, an indoor bicycle racing track, and held for days in dreadful conditions, until they finally are sent to Auschwitz. Sarah is desperate to escape, as she has locked her little brother in a secret cupboard in their Paris apartment, promising him she will come to let him out. The key of the title is the key to the cupboard she keeps in her pocket.
The 2002 portion of the book is the story of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist in Paris, who is investigating the Vel' d'Hiv roundup for a story commemorating the 50th anniversary of this tragic event. Woven into the chapters about Julia's research are the details of her life, including her troubled marriage to a Frenchman and what it's like to be an American expat in Paris. Little by little, Julia also begins to discover that her in-laws are connected to the events she is researching, and has to overcome their resistance to revealing what happened in the past.
In the end, the two stories tragically merge, with the surprising involvement of Julia's father-in-law. After finding out what happened to Sarah and writing her piece, Julia has to deal with her own portion of tragedy in the crisis in her marriage (this is the part I am thinking my 14-year-old son is really not going to enjoy reading). She ends up returning to New York, and tracks down Sarah's son, resulting in a final twist to the story.
I enjoyed this book most for the historical background and Sarah's part of the story, which was harrowing but truly interesting. I found much of Julia's story to be overly melodramatic, the modern Parisian characters felt like caricatures, and some of the twists you could see coming a mile away. Nevertheless it was an engaging and fast-paced read. I hope my son feels the same way as we have to return the book this weekend and he's only halfway!
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