Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Book review: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

My edition: Paperback, to be published on 27 September 2012 by Penguin Books, 516 pages.

Description: In 1916 French artist Edouard LeFèvre leaves his wife Sophie to fight at the Front. When her town falls into German hands, his portrait of Sophie stirs the heart of the local Kommandant and causes her to risk everything - her family, reputation and life - in the hope of seeing her true love one last time.

Nearly a century later and Sophie's portrait is given to Liv by her young husband shortly before his sudden death. Its beauty speaks of their short life together, but when the painting's dark and passion-torn history is revealed, Liv discovers that the first spark of love she has felt since she lost him is threatened...

In The Girl You Left Behind two young women, separated by a century, are united in their determination to fight for the thing they love most - whatever the cost.

Rating:



This is an astonishing novel which beautifully connects present and past in a tale of war and love. The Girl You Left Behind has a dual time-frame narrative; the first part is seen through the eyes of a woman in occupied France in 1916, the second through one living in modern day London. I'm not generally a fan of historical literature, particularly one with a war setting, so I was slightly reluctant at the start of this novel. However, any doubts I had were washed away mere minutes after picking up the novel as the story within was so gripping that I could barely manage to put it down at all.

Part one of the novel is set mostly in the occupied French village St Péronne at the height of the first World War. Sophie LeFèvre lives with her brother Aurélien, sister Hélène, and her sister's children in their former hotel La Coq, while her husband and brother-in-law are somewhere at the front but haven't been heard of for months. Their house used to be a decent hotel but stripped bare by the Germans there's little left of the glorious rooms where both Sophie and Hélène spent their wedding nights. The bar downstairs is still very lively during the day, though rations are low so the gathering of people has little to do with splurging on alcoholic drinks but more with finding solace amongst one another.

Author Jojo Moyes paints a sober picture of the town and its people that slowly turns more gritty as the story moves along; with neighbour turning on neighbour as the slightest of suspicions. Sophie witnesses the brutal impact the towns gossip can have first hand as the new German Kommandant takes a fancy first to Edouard's painting of Sophie, 'The Girl You Left Behind', and then also to the woman herself. Accused of being a collaborator Sophie feels she has nothing left to lose when she makes one final attempt to find her way back to Edouard.

At a crucial stage in Sophie's story we suddenly flick to London in 2006 and meet young widow Olivia Halston. Her husband died four years ago and despite friends and family urging her to move on she desperately clings to anything that remains of David. This means she's had to remortgage the house she lives in as she doesn't want to part with the architectural legacy David left behind.

When Live meets the charming Paul McCafferty she, for the first time since David's passing, finally feels she may have a chance at a romantic relationship again. That is, until she finds out that he works for a company that specialises in recovering stolen art and that a painting bought for her by David, 'The Girl You Left Behind', is currently being pursued by descendants of Edouard LeFèvre.

What follows is Paul and Liv's search into the past, Sophie's past to be exact, to try and uncover the truth behind the painting's journey. Liv desperately tries to prove it was never stolen as the painting symbolises a little piece of David she doesn't want to part with. But on the opposite end Paul continues to find evidence to state the contrary and slowly Sophie sees the painting slipping away from her fingers.

Through the characters' combined research into the painting's history the reader picks up bits and pieces of Sophie's life after the story was left off in the novel. As Paul and Liv piece together the faith of the young woman who just as desperately tried to get back to Edouard as Sophie is trying to cling to the fragments of David she has not yet lost, so does the reader.

At this stage I honestly couldn't flip the pages quick enough to find out what had happened to Sophie and what would happen to the painting. Written incredibly engaging both stories were unfolding at a pace that keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat for the duration of the novel. The final quarter in particular was revealing and an absolute emotional roller-coaster for me. I went from feeling sad when confronted with the suffering of both women central in the story, to angry at the inconsiderate and greedy people they come across, until finally a sense of serenity came over me as the novel came to satisfactory conclusion within its final pages.

Touching, moving, heart-breaking at times but heart-warming in the end, The Girl You Left Behind truly is one superb piece of writing. I wonder if it's too soon to start reading it again straight away? This time perhaps not flipping the pages quite as quickly as I've done before in my desperation to find out what would happen next, but instead relishing the beautiful words of author Jojo Moyes.

Too soon or not, one thing I will certainly do is add Moyes' back-catalogue to my to-read list as I've found a new inspiring author that I certainly want to read more of.

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