I had not previously known about Jojo Moyes, the author of twelve novels, when a friend suggested that I would like Moyes’ most recent book, “The Girl You Left Behind.” Good suggestion.
Moyes tells a story set in World War I of a couple in 1916 France, Sophie and Edouard Lefevre, who become separated when Edouard is called to fight for France against the Germans. Edouard is a prolific and talented painter who presented his wife with a portrait of her, which came to be known as “The Girl You Left Behind.” It is Sophie’s most treasured possession when Edouard is away and a reminder of the deep love that exists between the couple.
When the German army enters and occupies their sleepy little town of St. Peronne, Sophie’s family is compelled by the Kommandant, Friedrich Hencken, to make dinners for the soldiers each evening in the family hotel, Le Coq Rouge. The Kommandant notices Sophie’s painting on the wall and is enchanted by it, and perhaps even by its subject, Sophie.
Sophie seizes on a way to free her husband, Edouard, whom she learned has been taken prisoner to one of the cruelest prisons in Germany. She is willing to give up Edouard’s painting in order to bring him safely home. A series of events occur, clothed in secrecy, as Sophie’s plan plays out in unsuspected ways.
The reader is then transported to London ninety years later in 2006 to meet Liv Halston, whose husband David, a successful architect, had built their avant-garde house of glass and steel. While on their honeymoon in Barcelona, he spied “The Girl You Left Behind” in an antique store and purchased it for Liv. The face in the portrait reminded David of his new bride. David’s death seven years later leaves Liv bereft, but with the picture as a reminder of their deep relationship.
It is a curious tactic that Jojo Moyes tells the story of Sophie and Edouard in the past tense, but Liv’s story is presented to us in the present tense. Moyes, a gifted writer, is able to quietly make this transition to separate the two stories.
We learn that 33-year-old Liv has not been able to recover from David’s death, and finds herself visiting a bar one evening to leave her sanctuary as well as the portrait, which holds so many memories for her. At the bar, she meets Paul McCafferty and they are immediately attracted to each other.
Again, Moyes is able to slip in coincidences which might prove unacceptable to a reader if not presented so deftly by this author. Paul has not yet revealed to Liz that he is a professional art-theft investigator whose company is commissioned to find and return stolen art to its rightful owners.
As their relationship continues, Paul is startled to see on Liv’s bedroom wall a painting that his company is seeking to find for a client. He abruptly departs, leaving Liv wondering about his behavior. It comes to light that the descendents of Edouard Lefevre had seen the painting in an architectural magazine which featured Paul and Liv’s unusual home and its contents. When Liv learns the truth of Paul’s departure, she is unconvinced that Paul had no knowledge that the painting for which he was searching was in her possession.
The Lefevre family begins a lawsuit to force Liv to return what they believe is a stolen painting under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which prohibits the looting of civilian property during wartime.
The courtroom drama begins with Liz and her attorney up against Paul’s polished expertise and the Lefevre descendents. Jojo Moyes wraps up the story very cleverly, satisfying the reader’s need for truth, for reality and decency. It was a wonderful piece of historical fiction, letting us know that the loose ends of wartime take years to resolve. I highly recommend this book.
It is interesting that the film “The Monuments Men” was released in 2014 which covers the same topic of looting art treasures by the Nazis in World War II. The Nazi government was not in existence during World War I, the time frame of Moyes’ story, but nevertheless the same looting was taking place in Germany at that time.