Books: Betrayal and the betrayed

The author of ‘Sarah’s Key’ explores themes of marriage and adultery in a collection of short stories.

The sun sets over the Pont des Arts next to the River Seine in paris. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The sun sets over the Pont des Arts next to the River Seine in paris.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Tatiana de Rosnay, author of the international best-seller Sarah’s Key, has written A Paris Affair, a collection of edgy and provocative short stories about the ravages of adultery where men seem to possess unlimited power to emotionally maim, and women remain vulnerable and concerned with their ever fading beauty.
This author possesses a decisively contemporary sensibility, but she is old-fashioned, too, having come of age when feminism was blossoming but hadn’t fully bloomed.
Her stories often center on confused and lonely women uncertain about how to structure their lives, particularly those who have given up their careers to raise young children. Mostly, they seem sad and shocked by circumstances they didn’t foresee. Her book is a thoughtful meditation on the toxic lingering effects of marital betrayal.
In almost every story, the women fret over pounds they are unable to lose and imperfections in their appearance, which they seem to see as their principal collateral in a world where men still really have most of the control.
De Rosnay seems to have bought into this. Photographs of her show her to be an exceedingly attractive and ultra-slender woman with an aristocratic air, but there is a nervous insecurity in her eyes that seems to reflect her own longing to be more desirable than she imagines herself to be.
She has admitted that her own marriage has undergone periods of stress and has conceded that her enormous success with Sarah’s Key, which was translated into almost 50 languages and made into a motion picture, caused strains in balancing her home and work life.
She was mothering two teenage children, a daughter and a son, when Sarah’s Key came out in 2007 and was inundated with demands from all facets of the publishing world.
Sarah’s Key is about the roundup of French Jews in 1942 in the Vel’ d’Hiv by the French police operating under Nazi control.
De Rosnay loved writing as a young girl and began keeping her own diary after reading The Diary of Anne Frank at age 11.
When she was older, she became deeply affected by the work of Patrick Modiano, who, like her, was obsessed with the secrets and deceptions of family life. We can hear echoes of this in the words of one of her female characters in this volume who says sadly, after learning about her husband’s infidelity, “We’re given enough warning, aren’t we, when we’re little girls? We see our father cheating on our mother, our uncle cheating on our aunt, our grandfather cheating on our grandmother….”
De Rosnay comes from a highly accomplished family. Her father is a scientist who taught at MIT and is of Russian-French descent.
Her paternal grandmother was the Russian actress Natalia Rachewski, who was the director of the Leningrad Pushkin Theater. Her maternal grandfather was the British ambassador to France and Winston Churchill’s right-hand man.
De Rosnay lived for many years as a young girl in the United States. She spent her college years in England, and her adult life in France, where, in addition to writing novels, she has worked as a literary critic.
The dangers of the new technologies and their invasion into modern life infiltrate all of her stories. In one particularly memorable one, a lover is rushing down a hotel corridor where his lover awaits him. He fantasizes about his mistress in various states of undress, and pictures how she has probably thrown her clothes carelessly on the floor near the bed as she usually does. But he isn’t planning on showing up. Instead, he shoves a note under the hotel room door and races back to his office. The note explains bluntly how he can no longer see her; she is too big a threat to his wife and children, and he has decided to end the affair.
When he hears the news a few hours later that the hotel he was just at has been consumed by a raging fire, he panics, thinking perhaps his lover has done something horrible. He then worries that if something happens to her, they will find her phone, and the text messages and cellphone calls he has made to her will be exposed.
He decides to confess to his wife, whom he still loves and finds beautiful. A few hours later, he receives a text from his lover apologizing for missing their tryst. She forgot about it and wanted to make new plans to meet him.
De Rosnay seems to take pleasure when the betrayer gets betrayed, as if it is some form of poetic justice.
In another story, a woman cheats on her husband and justifies it to herself because she has decided her husband is insufferably boring. In another tale, a woman who has chosen to stay home with her kids feels a certain emptiness envelop her that she has no name for. In another saga, a man finds his wife’s attention to their newborn child so overwhelming he seeks out prostitutes for relief. In yet another story, a woman finds out her husband likes men and tries to figure out how to keep him anyway.
De Rosnay is not a rigid moralist and seems to understand the foibles of human behavior. There is little tenderness in her stories, or romance really, or much empathy. The marriages she describes are battlegrounds littered with hurt and resentment.
But underneath her cold and steely-eyed realism, there is a romantic yearning.
We can hear it when she has one of her fictional characters, a woman who has been deceived, remember an earlier time with her husband when all things seemed possible. She says, “You were tall, handsome, charming. You smiled at me. It was a crowded party. We talked all night long. And we saw each other again, and we got married. And then there was Angelique. You wanted a girl. You dreamed of having a daughter. When she was born, you cried. I remember your tears and your big hands protecting her tiny, fragile body. You told me it was the greatest day of your life…”