**Giveaway is now closed**
One of the benefits of historical fiction is that it allows readers to fully immerse themselves in a specific time period. Reading about the worst parts of the world’s history, we ask ourselves, “Would I have been strong enough to survive that? Could I have done what she did?” The reason the men and women who were young adults during World War II are called the Greatest Generation is because so many of us fear, in comparison to them, the answer to that question is, “No.” Current writers of historical fiction are urged to marry their historical story to a contemporary one, as if readers would be unable to identify with a protagonist not of this time. For stories in a time of war, this “then and now” structure sets up that dichotomy even more. The problems of contemporary heroines don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to what their great-grandmothers went through during the world wars.
Jojo Moyes’ new novel, The Girl You Left Behind, alternates between Sophie Lefevre, a painter’s wife struggling to survive in occupied France during World War I, and Liv Halston, a widow in contemporary England fighting to hang on to her portrait of Sophie, entitled The Girl You Left Behind. While the novel is gripping from beginning to end, Moyes falls into the same trap as others who’ve gone back and forth between a time of war and a time of peace: The war-time heroine is so compelling, her struggles literally life-and-death, that her contemporary counterpart appears petty in contrast.
The novel begins in 1916 in a small French town overrun by German soldiers. When we meet Sophie, she is standing up to a German Kommandant in an incredibly brave, almost foolhardy way. Sophie’s artist husband Edouard is off fighting the Germans at the front, and one of her only keepsakes of him is the painting he did of her when they first began dating, The Girl You Left Behind. Sophie’s fiery spirit and the painting itself draw the attention of the Kommandant. He forces Sophie and her sister Helene to serve him and his battalion of men an elaborate dinner every night, even while the rest of the village slowly starves and begins to suspect Sophie of collaborating with the enemy. When Sophie receives word that Edouard has been taken to one of the worst German POW camps, she hatches a desperate plan to convince the Kommandant to save her husband.
In London 2006, Liv Halston is still mourning the death of her architect husband David four years ago. She lives alone in the austere modern home he designed that she can no longer afford. She shares her bedroom with the portrait he bought her on their honeymoon in Spain – The Girl You Left Behind. A chance encounter with former NYPD cop Paul McCafferty leads to unexpected romance. But their first night of passion ends abruptly the next morning when Paul gets a close look at the painting on Liv’s bedroom wall. That’s because Paul’s current job is tracking down works of art that were lost or stolen during World War II. And "The Girl You Left Behind" is the next on his list. As Sophie fights for her very life and the lives of her friends and family, Liv fights to hold onto a painting for which she has a dubious claim.
The Girl You Left Behind is an extremely well-written, well-researched book with a spellbinding plot and multi-dimensional characters. But with such a drastic contrast in the stakes faced by the two heroines, I found myself wowed by Sophie and annoyed with Liv. Moyes paints a rich portrait of the occupied French village and Sophie’s place therein. Every characters’ point-of-view is sympathetic – even while Sophie is being ostracized by the villagers, I could understand how they would resent a woman who seems to be cozying up to the Germans to ensure food for her own family. Sophie herself is driven solely out of deep love for her husband and the desire to protect her family and friends. She stands up for herself as the villagers pull away from her, mourning the loss of friendship but never doubting that she’s doing the right thing.
Liv, on the other hand, is a much harder character to appreciate, and I found myself questioning some of Moyes’ choices as plot devices designed to get the reader to sympathize with a woman fighting to keep something that might not be hers to keep. Liv is a broke widow (of a famous wealthy architect who should have had generous life insurance policies benefiting both his wife and his business) who invites a homeless Goth former classmate to live with her rent-free – a move I found to be an obvious bid to get readers on Liv’s side. When Liv continues to fight for the painting, everyone who opposes her is portrayed as greedy, lascivious, or cruel (Liv gets spit on). Moyes shows only two families who are searching for lost paintings, and they are both in it for the money. Further, by placing Sophie’s story during World War I rather than the Nazi period, Moyes avoids dealing with that much more emotional time period. The issues raised in this novel are fascinating, and I felt that rather than exploring them more fully, Moyes only presented one side of the story in order to buttress Liv’s actions.
The novel is also rife with coincidences. The big one, of course, is Liv just happening to fall for the man hired to find the painting that hangs in her bedroom. This contrived plot twist cannot be explained away by characters talking about fate or bad luck, and it’s one the author could have easily avoided. As the fight for the painting heats up, other characters and writings just happen to pop up at the most opportune time. I could almost see Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady sneering, “Isn’t THAT convenient!” during these moments.
Overall, though, I loved Sophie and I was rooting for her with my fingernails digging into my palms. I wish Moyes had paired her with a modern family member rather than Liv, but perhaps she thought such a story structure would be too obvious. It is a luxury as a reader to question a writer’s plot choices and character actions at this level. Its shortcomings do not keep The Girl You Left Behind from being The Book You Have to Read.
Check out the prequel novella, Honeymoon in Paris for $2.99.
Thanks to Penguin for the book in exchange for an honest review. They have one copy to give away to a lucky reader and will also include a paperback of Me Before You.
How to win:
Tell us about something you left behind. Were you able to get it back or is it gone for good?
One entry per person.
Please include your e-mail address or another way to reach you if you win. Entries without contact information will NOT be counted.
US only. Giveaway ends August 25th at midnight EST.
For another chance to win this book, visit WhoRuBlog by Wednesday, August 21st. (US/Canada.)
More by Jojo Moyes: