IN A NUTSHELL
- The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Penguin Books, 2012)
- In 40 words or less: A portrait ties together two young women and their absent husbands. A thought-provoking story of love, art, ownership and restitution.
- Genre: Fiction
- Locale: France and London
- Time: 1916 and Present
- Read this for a classic story interwoven with contemporary issues of ownership, morality and the transformative power of art.
Jojo Moyes first made a splash on the US book scene in 2012 with her novel Me Before You. With a longstanding reputation in Great Britain, two additional titles were released here later in 2012, The Girl You Left Behind and its prequel novella, Honeymoon in Paris. Were it not for a book group requesting a discussion on The Girl You Left Behind, I might have missed it. I’m glad I didn’t.
Moyes immediately immerses the reader in the life of Sophie Lefèvre, a young woman struggling with her sister and brother to get by while the Germans occupy their French village in October 1916. Sophie, strong and independent, had lived in Paris, meeting her artist husband, Edouard, there while she was a shopgirl. When he left for the Army, she returned to the village to help her sister whose husband was goners well. The Germans commandeered almost everything, leaving the residents with little to eat and few possessions. The sisters’ inn, stripped of almost all furniture, was required to prepare and serve meals to the troops billeted in the town. While charged with preparing the food, the family, which included a baby and the daughter of a woman taken by the Germans, had to account for every morsel of food served.
The only item of value left in the home was a painting of Sophie by Edouard, an Impressionist. The portrait was imbued with all the love Edouard felt for his wife and served as a promise of their future together. The Kommandant was taken by the painting and was prepared to go to great lengths in the hope of acquiring it. And Sophie would put herself in great peril for the chance to reunite with Edouard.
The story shifts to present-day London where Liv Halston is a young widow, living in the Glass House designed by her late husband David, a renowned architect. Liv is frozen in her grief, the only softness in her life is the portrait David purchased for her while they honeymooned in Paris. A chance meeting with an ex-pat American involved in art restitution sets off a chain of events upending both their lives and demanding that the fate of the Lefèvres be known.
Don’t for a minute think this is merely a story of time-linked romances. Moyes presents the legal and emotional issues associated with art restitution, carefully making the Holocaust a minor player. By doing so the visceral attachment people have to art, as contrasted with its possible market value, is elevated. Moyes is acutely aware that most restitution claims arise from German confiscation of art owned by Jews and brings that into the story as a means of bringing moral gravitas to the debate about ownership and redress.
With carefully constructed plot twists, The Girl You Left Behind held my interest to final page. Moyes’s deft hand in tackling fundamental issues rises well above many popular novels.