The Girl You Left Behind
By: Jojo Moyes
Format/Source: galley courtesy of Penguin Group Viking via NetGalley
France, 1916: Artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his young wife, Sophie, to fight at the front. When their small town falls to the Germans in the midst of World War I, Edouard’s portrait of Sophie draws the eye of the new Kommandant. As the officer’s dangerous obsession deepens, Sophie will risk everything—her family, her reputation, and her life—to see her husband again.
Almost a century later, Sophie’s portrait is given to Liv Halston by her young husband shortly before his sudden death. A chance encounter reveals the painting’s true worth, and a battle begins for who its legitimate owner is—putting Liv’s belief in what is right to the ultimate test.
I’ve been hearing and reading a lot of buzz about her other book, Me Before You, but I haven’t read it yet. I was however curious about this title–I enjoy historical fiction and mysteries like the premise of this novel–so I was pretty happy to have been approved of a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I think it’s already been out for a while in Europe/internationally but it’s coming out here in North America on August 20th.
This book is part of the Books on France Reading Challenge 2013 that I am participating in.
Contains some spoilers ahead!
Reading Sophie’s section of the story, it occurred to me that despite reading a lot of novels set during the two wars, I still haven’t read as many novels set in World War One compared to World War Two. The author does a wonderful job in bringing occupied France to life–an occupation of the countryside for that matter, far from Paris–and the realities that individuals have to face. These people are not in the frontlines of the war but their hardships are just as difficult.
Sophie makes the best of her situation and I felt really bad for her as the only things she really wanted were for the war/occupation to end and for her husnand to come home safe and sound. She’s in a difficult situation, especially when she learns there’s a way to see him again. War brings out the really nasty side of other people, ostracising fellow neighbours at the slightest hint that he or she is showing kindness towards the enemy. I really felt bad for Sophie, it’s difficult to draw boundaries when you’re living with your occupiers day in and out; you start realising that despite it all, they’re human too, with their own lives and families waiting for them. Her chapters really drew my attention and were very compelling to read.
On the flip side, I initially found Liv’s story in our present-day interesting. I felt sympathy for her as she is still grieving for the loss of her husband and how her life was slowly falling apart with the issue of the mortgage and struggling to live from day to day. It was interesting to connect to her character via her own classmate, Mo, whom she runs into early in her story. The gradual development of Liv’s relationship to Paul was also cute, pretty slow which was not only realistic in Liv’s case but also a good pace.
As Liv’s story and the issue about the painting becomes clearer and more involved, intersecting with everyone’s lives, Liv honestly started getting irritating with some of the decisions she makes along the way. I understand the sentimental value behind the painting, the importance of keeping to Sophie’s memory and Liv’s indignation that Sophie’s relations are only after the money but Liv is too blinded by her attachment and by her perspective (understandable that she thought that Paul might’ve engineered the whole thing–them meeting, going on dates, etc. just to get closer to her painting; the coincidence is baffling) that she pretty much shuts down every option available to her, including a quieter way to resolve the restoration of the painting. Additionally, considering her current situation–the mortgage regarding the house and the bills stacking up–I couldn’t help but think why she would opt to go through all that grief and trouble when she’s already in so much trouble. The lack of rationality going on rattled my nerves and unfortunately there was no one close to her who could talk some sense into her (Mo unfortunately was not that close of a friend, I feel, to be able to lay the law down; she would try to talk to her at times but in the end just went along until she couldn’t).
If anything, she could have at least worked with Paul to figure out what happened to Sophie and trace how the painting ended up in Liv’s possession. Paul had resources that Liv could’ve used, they could have compared notes earlier on that would have avoided the case from entering the spotlight and painting Liv in a bad light. I appreciate the parallels with Sophie’s situation with the Kommandant back in 1916 but unlike Sophie’s situation, a lot of what happens to Liv along the way could have been avoided.
Luckily things worked out in Liv’s favour but I didn’t feel too relieved; it could’ve easily ended very badly for her. She was extremely lucky. I also found myself a little dismayed that in the end Paul even ended up saying that he was at fault. I mean, I guess he could’ve tried to approach it differently but what can he do? Like other characters along the way said, it was his job. At least he didn’t purposely sneak into her life just to try to get the painting. I guess by the end of the novel I wasn’t as sympathetic towards Liv as I was at the beginning to really see where Paul was coming from; it’s nice that he genuinely cares for Liv but I didn’t agree with him berating himself for the way things worked out, Liv was too stubborn for most of the novel to take anyone’s advice.
Overall, I enjoyed The Girl You Left Behind enough. I especially liked Sophie’s story and her struggle to find her husband and reunite with him no matter the cost. Liv’s story however left me a little cold. I enjoyed reading her attempts to put together the various stories from survivors who remembered Sophie and her family and figure out what happened to Sophie after she was taken from her home. But Liv’s stubbornness and lack of rational decision-making left me rather irritated for a good chunk of the novel, hence why I’m rating this novel a 3 instead of a 4.