Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind, by Jojo Moyes

Copyright 2012 – Jojo Moyes

Published by the Penguin Group

I bought this book as a summer read to take with me on a vacation where I planned to spend a great deal of time reading by a pool. Usually I would choose a book much more lighthearted and absurd than this one, but the teaser on the back cover intrigued me so much that I had to buy the book on the way to catching my flight.

This book is a story of two women: one is Sophie Lefevre, a French woman in 1916 who is desperately hoping for her artist husband to return from the war in a German-occupied town in France. The German Kommandant in Sophie’s town notices a portrait of Sophie painted by her husband and is intrigued; first by the portrait and then by Sophie herself. Almost a century later, Sophie’s portrait hangs in the home of Liv Halston in England. Liv is trying to cope with the sudden death of her husband David and when the portrait, a wedding gift from David, is claimed by a distant family as having been illegally stolen during the First World War, Liv embarks on a battle to keep the portrait and ends up on a journey to discover the end of Sophie’s story.

This novel begins with Sophie and it is she who is the most compelling character in the entire book. I have a fondness for fictional stories interwoven into actual historical events and this one is told beautifully. Sophie is the quintessential strong female character whose flaws and consequential errors are devastating but which only make you like her more. We see her develop from a timid shop girl trying to find her way in sophisticated Paris, to the brave patron of her family’s hotel after both her and her sister’s husbands have gone off to war.

By contrast, Liv is a bit of a mess. She has grieved her husband’s death for far too long but when she finally starts to take a chance on love again it is with a man who turns out to be the lawyer for the family seeking to reclaim Sophie’s portrait.

I have to confess, I was much more interested in Sophie’s story than in Liv’s. Liv’s present-day battle to keep the portrait and her struggles with new-boyfriend Paul, while engaging and well written, were just a distraction from the much more compelling story of what happened to Sophie and her family during the war. Telling the story partly from Liv’s perspective is an interesting literary device but for me, it just took away from what could have been a terrifically beautiful piece of historical fiction. If the author had wanted to tell the story from two perspectives, there could have been much more interesting characters who could have been developed to accomplish this goal; perhaps telling it from the viewpoint of Sophie’s husband would have been too trite, but any of her other family members or neighbours in her German-occupied town would have made for a very interesting contrast.

Despite this, the book is very well written and is well worth a read – even if it’s not your summer read beside a pool!

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