A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay

My very first book blog review was of Sarah’s Key by de Rosnay, and it was such a heartbreaking story but beautifully written. I eventually watched the movie, which broke my heart again, and then decided to investigate what else de Rosnay had written- and found A Secret Kept. I didn’t know what to expect, but I anticipated another heart-wrenching novel. I was not disappointed.

In modern day Paris, France, Antoine has decided he needs to get away from his problems and decides the best way to do so is to celebrate the good times of the past with his sister, Mélanie, for her birthday. Both of them have recently been through bad break-ups, so traveling to their family’s old vacation haunt in Noirmoutier seemed like the perfect escape. While away for the long weekend, Antonie reflects on his life- the devastating divorce from his ex-wife Astrid caused by her affair with a man named Serge; his teenage children that has become strangers to him; and his tattered relationship with his father and the extended Rey family after his mother’s untimely passing in 1974. Antonie isn’t sure what can be done to mend the broken relationships in his life- but he’s thankful that Mélanie has remained a constant companion through it all.

While Mélanie and Antonie vacation, the memories of their childhood bubble to the surface in little bursts. Antonie was eight years old, his sister five, when they were there last in 1972. They remember the trips to watch le Passage de Gois be swallowed by the Atlantic with the tide changes, the elegant dinners with their grandparents, and even a few familiar faces. But what floods to the forefront of their minds is the memories associated with their mother, Clarisse.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

She passed away two years after their last trip to Noirmoutier, due to an aneurysm. Ever since that fateful day, the Rey family buried the memory of Clarisse, and she became a taboo topic to discuss. To be in Noirmoutier was like giving them permission to talk about her, to remember her. But then on the drive back to Paris, Mélanie remembers something so startling that when she turns to tell Antonie, who was in the passanger seat, she loses control of the car. As Antonie awaits the update from the doctor, he can’t help but wonder what the recollection was, despite his agony of the unknown condition of his beloved sister. As Tatiana de Rosnay slowly reveals the truth about Clarisse, Antonie finally comes to realize that he barely knew who his mother really was.

Overall, I found A Secret Kept both heartbreaking and yet brutally truthful. Reading from the perspective of a grown man was a little more disturbing that I expected, but in the sense that the honesty that came from Antoine was both graphic and emotional. I don’t think I really cared for Antoine, but I did pity him as he contemplated his poor relationships with his family and ex-wife. I did, however, love the plot. I love looking into the past through someone else’s eyes, and the fact that there was a shroud of mystery surrounding Clarisse and her affair was very intriguing. I wanted to know what happened just as much as Antoine. I also love the imagery that de Rosnay creates- I felt like I was in France, in Paris, in Noirmoutier. The pieces of French that she incorporates into the novel are lush little nuggets, and the way she describes the streets and buildings make me feel like I’m right there with the main character.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

I don’t know if I would recommend this book to many, due to it’s heavy nature and adult content, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t relish it. It’s another example of de Rosnay’s beautiful writing, and the complex nature of relationships, family, and life.

 

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Another recommendation from my friend from the stacks at the local public library.

The Nightingale took me a little time to get hooked on the story- it starts off rather slow (in my opinion). We are introduced to an unnamed elderly (but not old, as she would put it) lady who is reflecting on her life, and she eventually winds her way up to the attic and pulls out a memory box. Within the box, she finds documents dating back to World War II- specifically, identification papers of a Juliette Gervaise.

Trapped in the memory, the reader is taken back to France, 1939. We are introduced to Vianne Mauriac, a school teacher, mother, wife. On a perfectly normal day, she learns that her husband, Antoine, is being drafted to fight for France against the Germans. She is upset but permissive, believing that the talk of war is exaggerated and that he would be returning home soon. Imagining life without Antoine by her side was too much to think about for Vianne- after all, he had been there for as long as she could remember, certainly longer than her father had. Dealing with her own abandonment issues was Vianne’s younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol. Rebelling against the traditional French-woman behavior, Isabelle ran away to home far too often, causing her to be expelled from many boarding schools. After the death of her mother, her father had abandoned them by dumping them at a boarding school. Where Vianne found Antoine and befriended a girl named Rachel, Isabelle was left behind, the forgotten little sister. Now as a rebellious young adult, Isabelle is running for another reason- to survive the storm of Germans coming to occupy Paris.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

As the start of the war happens, Vianne and Isabelle can’t let go of the hurt from their past. With varying views on the German occupation, Isabelle decides to join the war effort by secretly aiding the Allies, and Vianne takes a more passive route, complying with billeting soldiers in her home and abiding the German command. As the war wages on, the two seem to lead separate lives. Vianne attempts to stay her ground, doing her best to protect her daughter Sophie from the damages of war, and her neighbors when she can, all the while trying to maintain hope that the war will end soon. Meanwhile, Isabelle is running risky operations to save downed Ally airmen, a crime punishable by death, under the noses of commanding German officers. It is only when their two worlds collide again that the sisters begin to realize that they must put aside their past and hope to have a chance at a future.

Hannah took about 100 pages to get me hooked, but when she did, the hook went straight to my heart. As you all know, I have a weakness for historical fiction, and in particular those surrounding WWII. My great-grandfather was a volunteer of the Red Cross and helped liberate concentration camps in Germany in 1944-1945. We found photos that he took during that time after he passed away… and they will haunt me forever. So when I read these fictional stories, I know there is a very similar non-fictional story out there. A biography, even. And it makes me incredibly hurt and amazed that mankind would do such horrible things to each other, and yet people survived, had a will to survive….

I  also wanted to note that while somewhere in the middle of this book, I kept thinking about another novel, Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key, about WWII from the French perspective. I kept mentally comparing the two, and for about 100 pages, I kept thinking that de Rosnay’s was a more gripping read… and then Hannah’s hook got into me. What I found most interesting was that de Rosnay actually worked with Hannah on this novel, a few years after her own came out. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so, and if you haven’t read The Nightingale, the same goes for it. Just be ready to grab a box of tissues.