Family Secrets

Sarah’s Key
Tatiana De Rosnay

Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key was another novel on the book club table at Schuler’s that I picked up and put down for over a year. Alternating chapters between World War II (July 1942, to be exact) and present day France, we get the stories of two women, Julia Jarmond and Sarah Starzynski. Julia, an American ex-pat who has lived in Paris for the past twenty-five year,s is investigating Vichy France’s round-up and deportation of thousands of Jews. Sarah’s story is tragic–she is held in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ with her mother and father until they are separated and sent to different internment camps. Eleven-year-old Sarah does not understand the gravity and finality of that midnight knock on the door and agrees on the spur-of-the-moment to lock her four-year-old brother in their secret hiding place, not knowing that it would be his death sentence.

Living with that knowledge haunts Sarah and the family that found little Michael’s body for the rest of their lives. Sarah escapes from the camp and is sheltered by an elderly French couple from the countryside. Growing up as their adopted daughter, she eventually immigrates to the U.S. where she disappears at age twenty. Journalist Julia Jarmond discovers Sarah’s story in her research–and perhaps even more horrifying is her discovery that her husband’s family moved in to the Starzynski’s vacant apartment soon after their departure, and are there when Sarah several months later to recover his body. Feeling they are somehow complicite in his death, the Tezac family harbors the secret for sixty years.

Julia and Sarah’s stories alternate chapters for much of the book, which makes a good read for us impatient readers who hate having to leave one story to pick up another! Sarah’s story ends tragically, and Julia’s seems headed that way as she anticipates an abortion, divorce, and leaving Paris for the States. In the end, however, Sarah’s story is more satisfying, at least in the narrative sense. De Rosnay drags Julia’s story on a bit too long and maybe most confusing to me was the implied relationship between Julia and Sarah’s son William at the end. What, exactly, was their connection–spiritual? romantic? friendship?

Although the ending did not live up to the novel’s promise, Sarah’s Key was a good vacation read that kept me turning the page. 

Laugh until you can’t read!

So Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is this month’s book club read–and when it was chosen, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to read it. When my copy arrived in the mail, the teaser was a little more intriguing: “Not long after Rhoda Janzen turned forty, her world turned upside down. It was bad enough that her husband of fifteen years left her for Bob, a guy he met on, but that same week a car accident left her seriously injured” .  And so Janzen returns to her Mennonite family to recuperate, both physically and emotionally. Okay, so a memoir a little out of the ordinary–probably no “I-had-a-horrible-childhood” here. I did, however, seriously doubt the blurbs that assured me the book was laugh-out-loud funny. Cute, maybe. Sweet and endearing, sure. Crack-a-smile, of course.

I was wrong. By the time I read Janzen’s description of her cat trying to “catch” a drip of urine trailing down the catheter tubing (gross, I know, but I don’t do the scene justice), I couldn’t continue for the tears in my eyes from laughing so hard. While I have no experience being Mennonite, I do have the childhood experience of living in a frugal household where almost everything was reused, recycled, or bought on sale. Janzen had the lunchbox horror of Cotletten sandwhiches–I had “gooseliver”. Janzen wore pants extended by strips of cloth sewed along the hem–birdboned me wore “husky” elastic waist jeans my mom got on sale from Sears catalog. And while not Mennonite, anyone who grew up in an evangelical household can relate (at list a little bit) to the emphasis on Christian music and youth group “fun”.

Even though this is Janzen’s story, it is perhaps her mother Mary who most endeared herself to me. Mary Janzen is the queen of non-sequitur and so incredibly accepting of her daughter it almost broke my heart. When Janzen decides to accompany Mary on a visit to an eighty-six-year-old shut in, she asks her mom, “Is [Mrs.Wiebe] mentally alert?” To which her mom replies, “Oh yes! She wears a wig!” And Mary Janzen’s unconditional love is touchingly sweet. Janzen’s life outside the Mennonite community has had the biggest impact on her relationship with her adult brothers. Questioning her mother on why her brothers are more conservative even than her parents, Mary Janzen replies, “Oh, they’ll mellow over time. When you’re young, faith is a matter of rules … But as you get older, you realize that fiath is really a matter of relationship–with God, with the people around you, with the members of your community.” Would that all people of God showed such compassion and humility.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress takes a peek back into Janzen’s childhood, and also details the joys and struggles she had when she reached her twenties and made the decision to leave her community. Janzen talks openly about her abusive husband. And in her return home, Janzen finds that maybe accepting and incorporating her roots is more valuable and healthy than rejecting them outright. I had the pleasure of attending a book reading Rhoda Janzen gave at the public library one evening. When I went, I had only read fifty pages–but her strong voice, wry and sardonic tone, and effervescence made me run home and read the book even more quickly. And laugh out loud I did.

Next up: The Color of Lightening by Paulette Jiles. I’ve only read a couple chapters, but it’s already tempting me away from doing school work for next year!

Me, too–me, too!

Knit Two
by Kate Jacobs

Another round of Friday Night Knitting Club and I’m buying it all the way. Take up knitting? Me, too! Bake some muffins? Me, too! Go to Rome? Me, too! Open a bakery? Me, too! Live in New York? Me, too! Kate Jacobs strength is not necessarily in fine writing–but in making her readers care about her characters. I want to be part of their world … and so I power-read through Knit Two, happy all the way.

Several years after the death of Georgia, Dakota has finished a year of college, teetering on the edge of adulthood. The rest of the ladies have moved on–Darwin has twins, Lucie struggles with single parenthood, Anita anticipates marriage to Marty, Peri runs the shop. It is perhaps Catherine who transforms herself the most–going from self-absorbed socialite to a woman who gives up the mask she’s worn, finding, at long last, who she wanted to become.

Improbably, half the club find themselves in Italy for the summer. Dakota accompanies Lucie to nanny, James tags along to watch over Dakota, Anita searches for her long-lost sister, and Catherine goes … just because she can, I think! Nowhere but in a novel would such circumstances evolve–but somehow, it doesn’t seem far-fetched. Jacobs touches on some big issues–single-parenting, aging parents–and knits each situation up neatly with no raveled edges. Certainly not very much like life, but satisfying enough for a spring weekend. In fact, should there be a third Knitting Club novel … I’d very likely pick it up again and willingly let myself be transported to Walker and Daughter on the Upper West Side.

This ‘n that

Comfort Food
by Kate Jacobs

If a book could be a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup, this novel by Kate Jacobs would be just that. Nothing special, no fancy twists or turns–but satisfying all the same in a … comfort food kind of way. Rather typical chick lit, we’ve got the single mom (a widow this time), a young woman with a mysterious past, an even younger beauty queen trying to scratch and claw her way to fame, and, of course, the requisite hunk. What probably made the book work for me was the fact that the main character had a show on the CookingChannel–a slightly veiled stand-in for the Food Network. As a foodie who follows any number of celebrity chefs, part of the charm of the novel was trying to spot “my” celebrity chefs in the novel–but I have to admit the connections were pretty limited. If you’re in the (reading) mood for a light snack, Kate Jacobs novel just might hit the spot.

Too many books, too little time

–for blogging, at least. Sometimes frugal to a fault I hesitated buying this NPR recommended book–but my husband ordered off my wish list as a bit of “Happy Winter Break” reading material and it’s definitely a keeper. While I was initially drawn in by the stories of the help, it was Skeeter Phelan’s story that continued to draw the narrative forward. The lives of Abileen and Minny didn’t really change (although we understood with the death of Medgar Evars that Change was on the way), but Skeeter, a Junior League member standing just on the outside of the Southern Belle circle, evolved as she took down the stories of the colored women who served her family and the families of the other League members.

Skeeter begins her journey mourning the loss of the black woman who raised her and also her status as a “spinster” at age twenty-four. Thinking that since marriage wasn’t currently an option she’d find meaning in a career, Skeeter gets a part-time job at the local newspaper writing a household advice column. Knowing nothing about homemaking (since the help had done all things domestic in her family) Skeeter turns to Abileen, the maid of her best friend for help. Ablileen provides the substance Skeeter needs to write her column–and ends up throwing Skeeter the lifeline she needs. We see Skeeter as she comes to understand the lives of the black women she lived with side-by-side, as she gives up her chase to find a husband, as she throw off the propriety of the fifties to embrace the freedom of the sixties.

A compelling good read.