I read Tatiana de Rosnay’s second English-language novel, A Secret Kept, for two reasons: One, I genuinely liked Sarah’s Key, which impressed me with its subject matter (the underreported Vel d’Hiv roundup of Jews in occupied France in the summer of 1942) and its reverence for historical memory; and two, I’ll read almost anything set in Paris. With that in mind, I wouldn’t say the book was a complete waste of time, but it was certainly disappointing and ultimately frustrating, because, while Sarah’s Key wasn’t well-written, it did belie a true gift for storytelling that de Rosnay completely abandons in her latest effort. The basic plot is as follows: Antoine Rey is a recently-divorced architect living in Paris; he’s morose, still in love with his ex-wife (who left him for a man she’d met on vacation at a Club Med), and unsure of how to deal with his three teenage kids, all of whom seem to care more about their iPhones than they do about Antoine. On his sister Mélanie’s fortieth birthday, Antoine takes her on a surprise trip to the beach town in Northern France where they’d spent a few idyllic childhood summers back when their mother was still alive, and on the way home Mélanie unearths a long-repressed memory that makes her lose control of the car. (This isn’t ruining anything; it happens within the first ten pages.) Anyway, long story short, Antoine goes on a quest to discover the truth about his mother’s life and death (ostensibly from a brain aneurysm) while figuring out how to let go of the past and allow himself be happy again. If it sounds schmaltzy, that’s because it kind of is.
While the book is undeniably maudlin, that’s not its biggest problem—you know what you’re getting into simply by scanning the book-jacket blurb. The real problem is that every time the story seems to be going somewhere, it ends up just falling apart. De Rosnay is fond of the kind of breathless, cliffhanger-y prose that made Dan Brown famous, but her “big reveals” are anything but. The “kept secret” in question is shockingly benign, and after all that buildup, you can’t help but feel cheated. Certain details (Mélanie’s relationship troubles, two untimely deaths) seem at first like make-or-break plot points, but they eventually just shrivel away into either blink-or-you’ll-miss-it wrap-ups or nothing at all. The book seems . . . unfinished, though it shouldn’t have been longer; it just should have been more tightly wound, more shrewdly formed. You kind of want to suggest to de Rosnay that a junior-high-school-style outline might have helped.
Ultimately, the book is easy and ephemeral, and I’m glad I read it simply because it didn’t take much time. But I’m sure there are better ways somebody else can spend several hours.