Summary in seven words: First half okay. Second half bad. Last eighth awful.
Something doesn't add up here.
Sarah's Key tells two stories. One is the story of the Starzynski's, a Jewish family, victims of the Holocaust. The other is of the Tézac family, a family of blahs and quacks, whines and cheeses. The first half of the novel alternates between their two stories. The Starzynski plot is encased in intrigue, suspense, and heart, while the Tézac plot is a bucket of cliches and constant whining. Unfortunately, the second half of the novel follows the Tézac family solely.
Sarah Starzynski's story is good, not great, but definitely good. The writing was simplistic, the plot at time's predictable, but the story itself helped boost the novel's faults. Why her story had to be tainted with the wishy-washy whining of Julia, the corny almost-perfect Zoë, and the ridiculously pompous rants of Bertrand is beyond me. I didn't care about their struggles, because in the face of the Starzynski trials, the Tézac's “problems” didn't amount to much.
Spending the majority of the novel on the Tézac family was a bad choice. Making the novel's many French characters into the bad guys—the American characters, the good guys—was a bad choice (and slightly odd considering the author's French nationality). Using words like incredulous at every single opportunity (there's a drinking game here) was a bad choice. While I, the unpublished novelist, hate to say it, there is just too much poor writing and too many mistakes made to lift this story beyond mediocre.
The concluding scenes of Sarah's Key almost lowers the novel past mediocre. I was tempted to drop it to two stars, but didn't feel that would be fair to judge the work so harshly for such a small part. Much of it is unnecessary. The author's constant references to “the baby,” “ Zoë's sister,” “the child,” et cetera, were ridiculous—if the reader doesn't know the baby's name with absolute certainty by that time, the reader wasn't reading very carefully. No, strike that, if the reader doesn't know that baby's name, they must have been reading another book all along. For de Rosnay to try to trick the reader, hoping for an emotional response, is a great mistake—she may as well announce that her reader's are too ignorant to figure out any of the novel's simple equations.
Sarah's Key was unbalanced and poorly constructed. It could have been so much better. Unfortunately, when piling problems on top of problems a story has the tendency to fall apart and the reader is left with the pieces, hoping they can piece them all back to together and make something sensible. Again, something just doesn't add up here.