The novel presents familial love as a potential antidote to the various sufferings of its characters. Both Julia and Sarah feel strongly bonded to their siblings, yet de Rosnay stops short of depicting love of any kind as a means of redemption or cure for trauma. Instead, she repeatedly points to the limits of love as a healing force, arguing that there are wounds that no force, even one as powerful as love, can mend.
Biological and adoptive siblings play a major role in both plots of the novel. Sarah’s relationship with her little brother, Michel, is the most prominent of these relationships, but Julia’s relationship with her sister, Charla, is also significant, and even Bertrand, a deeply unsympathetic character, has a relationship with his two sisters, making him slightly more relatable. De Rosnay depicts these sibling relationships as imbuing the characters’ lives with deep meaning, even suggesting that, through her research, Julia is able to forge a sort of sisterly bond with Sarah. Just as Sarah carries Michel’s memory “as [she] would a child,” Julia comes to carry Sarah’s “story, her suffering,” with her in her daily life. Familial love, particularly between siblings, anchors the characters in times of distress.
De Rosany portrays love, then, as a sustaining force—but, through Sarah’s story, she highlights the fact that love is not fully redemptive. Although in her life after the camps she is surrounded by a loving adoptive family (as well as by her own husband and son), Sarah is so devastated by the trauma she has experienced that she is consumed by grief and ultimately commits suicide. Similarly, de Rosnay underscores the notion that love cannot save people in the storyline of Julia and William, who seem to have a possible romantic future together. The novel ends with the image of Julia and William finally meeting eyes after each of them cries over Sarah’s tragic story and its significance to them. This suggests that the processing of pain is ultimately an individual act, though it’s one that can be eased by supportive, loving relationships.
The Limits of Love ThemeTracker
The Limits of Love Quotes in Sarah’s Key
Her father looked down at her. He said her name again, very softly. His eyes were still wet, his eyelashes spiked with tears. He put his hand on the back of her neck.
“Be brave, my sweet love. Be brave, as brave as you can.”
She could not cry. Her fear was so great it seemed to engulf everything else, it seemed to suck up every single emotion within her, like a monstrous, powerful vacuum.
But she had seen. She knew what it was. A young woman, her mother’s age, and a small child. The woman had jumped, her child held close, from the highest railing.
From where the girl sat, she could see the dislocated body of the woman, the bloody skull of the child, sliced open like a ripe tomato.
The girl bent her head and cried.
As she looked at Eva and her mother, the girl wondered if her parents had been right to protect her from everything, if they had been right to keep disturbing, bad news away fro her. If they had been right not to explain why so many things had changed from them since the beginning of the war. Like when Eva’s husband never came back last year. He had disappeared. Where? Nobody would tell her. Nobody would explain. She hated being treated like a baby. She hated the voices being lowered when she entered the room.
If they had told her, if they had told her everything they knew, wouldn’t that have made today easier?
The one who smelled a warm, comforting, motherly smell: delicious cooking, fresh soap, clean linen. The one with the infectious laugh. The one who said that even if there was a war, they’d pull through, because they were a strong, good family, a family full of love.
That woman had little by little disappeared. She had become gaunt, and pale, and she never smiled or laughed. She smelled rank, bitter. Her hair had become brittle and dry, streaked with gray.
The girl felt like her mother was already dead.
In that sheltered, gentle life that seemed far away, the girl would have believed her mother. She used to believe everything her mother said. But in this harsh new world, the girl felt she had grown up. She felt older than her mother. She knew the other women were saying the truth. She knew the rumors were true. She did not know how to explain this to her mother. Her mother had become like a child.
All of a sudden, every ounce of hope she still harbored within her ran out. In the old lady’s eyes she read what she most dreaded. Michel was dead. Dead in the cupboard. She knew. It was too late. She had waited too long. He had not survived. He had not made it. He had died there, all alone, in the dark, with no food and no water, just the bear and the storybook, and he had trusted her, he had waited, he had probably called out to her, screamed her name again an again, “Sirka, Sirka, where are you! Where are you?” He was dead, Michel was dead. He was four years old, and he was dead, because of her.
I thought of Sarah Starzynski, who had been Zoë’s age when horror came into her life.
I closed my eyes. But I could still see the moment when the policemen tore the children from the mothers at Beaune-la-Rolande. I could not get the image out of my mind.
I held Zoë close, so close she gasped.
I cannot bear the weight of my past.
Yet I cannot throw away the key to your cupboard.
It is the only concrete thing that links me to you, apart from your grave.