Paris, 1942: ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski locks her four-year-old brother in a secret cupboard to keep him safe when the French police come to arrest her family. Sarah swears to her brother that she will come back for him, but little does she know what the police have in store. Sarah and her parents, along with thousands of other Jewish families, are rounded up and held in the Velodrome d’Hiver, an indoor stadium, before they are sent on to the holding camp of Drancy, where Sarah’s parents are wrenched away from her and transported to Auschwitz. Somehow Sarah contrives to escape Drancy and, perhaps too easily, meets a kindly family who help her travel back to Paris in search of her brother. However, a brutal revelation awaits when they finally unlock that cupboard door.
Paris, 2002: Julia Jarmond, an expat American journalist researching the Vel’ d’Hiv round up, uncovers Sarah Starzynski’s story and soon learns that this girl’s fate intertwines with that of Julia’s French in-laws, who opportunistically moved into Sarah’s family’s apartment after the police dragged them off.
Sarah’s tale is powerful but truncated and never fully realised: the narrative feels too distanced, describing her as ‘the girl.’ Julia’s story, however, is told in first person, in somewhat overblown detail about the woes of being an American wed to a vain and philandering Frenchman (neither the historical nor the contemporary French come off very well in this novel) and forced to endure the summer without air-conditioning. Sarah’s tragedy is reduced to a subplot in an otherwise banal tale of a navel-gazing expat struggling to come to terms with her unhappy marriage.