Title: The Girl You Left Behind
Author: Jojo Moyes
No. of Pages: 384
Origins: Pamela Dorman Books
Release Date: 20 August 2013
Bottom Line: Compelling drama about love, loss, and survival
“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 officers 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 paintings true worth, and a battle begins for who its legitimate owner is—putting Liv’s belief in what is right to the ultimate test.”
Thoughts: One of the more fascinating aspects of the Jojo Moyes’ The Girl You Left Behind is the World War I setting of Sophie’s story. Not much has been written about this first German occupation, although it is every bit as compelling – if not more so – than the second German occupation of France thirty years later. Ms. Moyes does an excellent job portraying the perilous line between resistance and survival that clouded townspeople’s perceptions and instilled suspicion towards any action that could be construed as helping the German invaders. With her position as a town leader and pub owner, Sophie treads that line more closely than most of her neighbors and friends, and the way in which she is enmeshed into the dangers and politics is heartbreaking indeed. Where Sophie’s story really shines is in the aftermath. Her willingness to risk literally everything to see her husband again is compelling drama at its finest. Not only that but the agonizingly slow way in which Ms. Moyes presents Sophie’s fate will keep readers on the edge of their seats, breathless with anticipation.
In addition to being a story about love and loss, The Girl You Left Behind is also about those gray areas of right versus wrong. Sophie’s choices are bleak and limited, damning her as a German sympathizer no matter what she does or does not do. Liv’s choices are not as dire, but in her battle for the painting, her options are just as limited. In both instances, the women are in no-win situations, labeled as money-hungry whores or worse by their supposed friends and neighbors. Liv in particular bears the brunt of the negative publicity and appears as the villain in the battle for the painting’s ownership. Yet, in both instances, and as so often happens in real life, the truth is never as clear-cut as these friends and neighbors believe, something Ms. Moyes drills into her narrative while reminding readers that nothing is black-and-white. It is not only an excellent reminder for empathy but also a fascinating study on the mob mentality and how easy it is to get lost in the hype.
Usually an effective narrative device, The Girl You Left Behind does suffer from the juxtaposition in characters and time. The present simply does not compare to the past. Everything about the story that occurs in 1916 is carefully crafted and remarkably poignant. The backdrop of World War I is refreshing, while the occupation by the Germans of a small French village is definitely unique. Sophie is strong, determined, and resilient, and the gray areas between resistance and survival that occur in an occupied town only add to the drama. Next to such a vibrant personality and vivid landscape, Liv and her personal drama are too trivial.
This is not to say that Liv’s story is not interesting. Her refusal to back down from the fight for ownership reveals a strong woman, one much stronger than she appears to be upon the first introduction, while her battle to move on from the tragedy in her life is touching. Yet, in light of the pain of separation, suspicion, betrayal, and eventual fate that beset Sophie, Liv’s story does not have the same gravitas. It is tragic, but not nearly as tragic or powerful as Sophie’s narrative.
In spite of the superficial weaknesses of the entire story, The Girl You Left Behind is a compelling exploration of love and the depths to which people will descend to protect that love. Sophie puts herself through hell on the mere chance of seeing her husband again, while Liv fights an impossible fight to protect the memory of her husband and their marriage. The refusal by both women to bow under pressure is completely inspiring. More importantly, while Liv’s story is the weaker of the two, it still makes for an amazing story of resilience and the most profound elements of love.