I spent a lovely rainy day re-reading the wonderful book The Girl You Left Behind, for an upcoming book club meeting. I am a fan of Jojo Moyes books (you can click on the “Jojo Moyes” tag on the right-side of this page for a list of all of her books that I have reviewed) and always enjoy her novels, some I have read several times, since she always tells a compelling story that has a happy ending…and sometimes you need a happy ending.
The Girl You Left Behind is two stories intertwined into one novel — the first story is a historical fiction tale about a French woman living through the German occupation of her small town in rural France during WWI; the second story about a young widow struggling to hang on to her memories of her late husband, while simultaneously trying to move her life forward. The two tales are connected by the most unlikely of reasons…that they both have been the owners of the same painting, only one hundred years apart.
The books opening chapters find our first heroine, Sophie Lefevre, cold, starving, exhausted, and fearful. She, her sister, brother, niece and nephew has been imprisoned in their small town, living under the cruel and terrifying rule of the occupying German army. With her husband and her brother-in-law off fighting in the trenches, Sophie and her sister Helene are trying their best to keep their family safe and healthy despite the horrific conditions the Germans have imposed on their village. Sophie is a pillar of her community, constantly risking her life with acts of resistance against her German oppressors: sharing food, passing news, hiding family heirlooms, saving lives of allied soldiers, and more…all acts that could get her and her family killed or interned in a work camp.
When a new German Kommandant — a cultured man — comes to town, he becomes taken with Sophie, fascinated with both her fiery protection of her townspeople, but also with her pre-war life as the wife of a famous artist, Edouard Lefevre. In fact, it is a portrait of Sophie painted by her husband, one of her few remaining possessions not requisitioned by the army, that seems to most captivate the Kommandant.
His fascination with Sophie leads the Kommandant to create more and more ways for their paths to cross. While this makes Sophie family a target of rumors and anger; it also means that for the first time in years there is extra food for the children, firewood in the winter, and more protection from the unruly soldiers in town. Sophie and the Kommandant enter a delicate truce, his affection makes her life easier, and her presence brings him comfort. Sophie leads her family down a dangerous road, where their safety becomes more precarious than ever.
Fast-forward to London, circa 2012, where the portrait of Sophie, titled The Girl You Left Behind, hangs on the wall of Liv Halston’s home. The painting is a beloved souvenir from Liv’s honeymoon with her husband David, who died just four years after their wedding. Liv is struggling to move past her grief and — one night — takes a risk on a man, Paul. The two begin a love affair that is stopped in his tracks when Paul, an recovery agent for art stolen by Nazis — sees The Girl You Left Behind and recognizes it as stolen.
Soon Paul and Liv are on opposite sides of a legal battle for the painting, Paul argues it must be returned to Sophie Lefevre’s ancestors and Liv arguing it was purchased in a legitimate sale and is rightfully hers. Soon both of them are delving deep into Sophie’s story to find out what happened to her and The Girl You Left Behind. The more she learns about the woman in the painting, the more Liv becomes determined that she must hold on to the painting, both as a reminder of David and to protect the legacy of a brave woman who lost everything in the act of trying to save her family.
The book is an excellent, if emotional, journey into the realities women face during wartime, and the risks that women sometimes must take to protect the people and things they love.