The House I Loved by the author of Sarah’s Key

If you have ever lived in the midst of an urban renovation – the building of the metro in Washington, D.C. or a bridge replacement in Annapolis, for example – the inconvenience may have seemed secondary to the loss of favorite sites that were demolished to make way for progress. But nothing can compare to losing the family home. In The House I Loved, Tatiana De Rosnay targets Baron Haussman’s renovation of Paris under the reign of Emperor Napoleon III in the 1850s through the eyes of one woman about to lose everything.

As the small medieval streets are demolished to create the magnificent Boulevard St. Germain, one resident has not abandoned her home and relocated with the others. Rose, a fifty-nine year old widow, is determined to stay in the house where her husband’s family has thrived for generations – and die with its demolition. After shipping her furniture and clothes to her daughter’s home in Tours, she hides in the basement of her house, writing a letter to her dead husband, reminiscing about the small streets, shops, and neighbors that formed their lives – and rereading a box of precious letters from the past.

Through Rose’s thoughts and letters, De Rosnay slowly reveals the family’s history, and Rose’s narrative becomes the vehicle for educating the reader about an important part of Parisian history. The French author uses poignant scenes and beautiful descriptions to once again reveal more of the Paris she loves.

Rose’s love story is desperate and sad, with a slower pace than De Rosnay’s other books (A Secret Kept and Sarah’s Key), and not as compelling as the information about the modernization of Paris between 1853 and 1870. Under Haussman’s supervision, a new sewer system was installed and medieval side streets were replaced with modern wide straight avenues, destroying over 20,000 homes along the way.

After reading the book and remembering my stroll along the boulevard, I wanted to know more about Baron Haussman, the urban planner who changed the face of Paris – revered by some, thought of as a bully by others.

I’ve ordered two nonfiction books from my local library and look forward to reading more about the history.

As for The House I Loved, the book led me back to Paris and stirred some thoughts on historic preservation.

Sarah’s Key

I resisted reading Sarah’s Key, thinking it would be just another war exposé, maybe another Anne Frank.  But Tatiana de Rosnay addresses a war secret glossed over, even hidden, in the history books.  When I was in Germany last year, I took a tour in Munich that walked my group around sites that were no longer there, except for the plaques.  The guide emphasized that the Germans carefully removed buildings that had been used to glorify Nazism.  Of course, the places of horrors are there – especially, the concentration camps – so that no one will ever forget.

In Sarah’s Key, evidence of the French’s complicity in the terrible July, 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv’ Paris roundup of Jews is erased, but the shame of their participation still stains their history and continues to affect surviving generations.  In an historical and personal approach to an often ignored piece of the Holocaust, de Rosnay centers her story around two characters: Sarah, a young girl taken from her home that day and forced to endure horrors, terrible pain,  loss of dignity and family; and Julia, who years later finds herself in the center of the family shame that profited and then later tried to compensate for Sarah’s loss.

De Rosnay uses the poignancy of a young girl’s experiences, and the courage of a woman who must finally assert her own voice to tell a compelling story and open eyes.

“He knew it had been a Jewish family that had been arrested during that big roundup.  But he had closed his eyes, like so many other Parisians, during that terrible year…No one wants to be reminded…nobody wants to think about that.”

De Rosnay includes descriptions of Paris then and now, and the viewpoint of an American in Paris along with typical family drama, but it is the historical facts that carry the punch.  Whether or not you know about Hitler’s terrible “Operation Spring Breeze,” de Rosnay’s history lesson is worth telling, to not forget.

 

To read a review of another Tatiana de Rosnay book, check out A Secret Kept