by Jojo Moyes
I have such mixed feelings about this book!
Like The Last Letter from Your Lover, The Girl You Left Behind is two intersecting stories from two different periods of time, one past and one present.
At the heart of The Girl You Left Behind is a painting entitled, well, The Girl You Left Behind. Painted in the early part of the twentieth century, it is a portrait of a young woman by her artist husband. When France is drawn into WWI, Edouard must leave to fight, and his loving portrait of her is all Sophie has of him. In his absence, Sophie Lefévre returns to her hometown of St. Péronne to run the family restaurant/hotel with her younger brother and older sister, whose husband is also fighting at the Front. When German forces take over the town, Sophie and her sister are forced to prepare and serve meals to German soldiers. The Kommandant becomes fixated on Sophie’s portrait, and then on Sophie herself, and Sophie, desperate to protect her family and be reunited with her husband, makes a perilous decision.
Abruptly, the story jumps ahead to the present (minus a decade or so). Liv Halston still grieves for the husband who died suddenly four years previous. Alone and floundering in the Glass House she shared with him, on the verge of bankruptcy, Paul McCafferty enters her life by way of rescuing a damsel in distress – or more accurately, a drunk Liv who has her purse stolen at a bar. Predictably, the two fall for each other, and for the first time in four years, Liv begins to feel alive again. Until Paul notices the exquisite painting hanging in Liv’s bedroom, which happens to be the subject of a restitution claim which he is handling for the firm he works for – a firm that recovers artwork lost or stolen during wartime.
Their budding romance comes to a screeching halt, and Liv and Paul find themselves on opposite sides of an increasingly contentious case involving the history and rightful ownership of the painting, The Girl You Left Behind. Liv is almost maniacally determined to keep the painting at any cost – and indeed, the cost begins to become absurd – because her late husband gave it to her, and so her emotional attachment to it runs deep. The Lefévre family insists that it was stolen by the Germans during the First World War, however, and they are determined to have it returned to its rightful ownership. Complicating matters further is the fact that the painting is deemed to be worth a small fortune.
In her determination to retain the painting, Liv undertakes a mission to learn everything she can about the painting’s history and origins, and the more she learns, the more unsettled she is. What happened to Sophie Lefévre, and how did her portrait end up in the hands of an American journalist living in Spain?
I was completely drawn into Sophie’s story, but found myself frustrated, and even a little disgusted by the present-day Liv. Her utter refusal to even contemplate giving up the painting even in the face of mounting evidence of its tainted background made me dislike her principles, which made it difficult to like or even root for her. I won’t spoil the ending, but … well, read it for yourself.
Although both Sophie’s and Liv’s stories are full of unlikelihoods, the novel is no less enjoyable because of them. Moyes again delivers rich characters and settings, and an intricate story that is compulsively readable. As with Moyes’s other works, have some tissues handy.
Tacked onto the end of the novel is Moyes’s novella, Honeymoon in Paris, which is the prequel to The Girl You Left Behind, previously available only as an e-book. The novella is okay – definitely a romantic comedy as opposed to the romantic drama that is the main novel.