I have to say, I was not expecting to love this book. Like it maybe, or more likely to be disappointed halfway through and feel obligated to finish it. It is not a perfect book by any means, and yet here I sit having finished the novel (in two days), and I am temporarily at a loss for words.
The Girl You Left Behind is about two women: One living in a German occupied town in France in WWI, the other a mourning widow in modern London. Both of them have lost the men they loved; one is off fighting a war with no word if he is dead or alive, the other died suddenly much too young.
The first part of the book is dedicated to Sophie, the Frenchwoman whose town has been occupied by Germans in World War I. Her husband, who is now off fighting in the war, was a painter. He had painted a portrait of Sophie in their happier days, and it now hung in her family’s hotel, reminding Sophie that she wasn’t always a skeletal being of fear and hunger. When the Germans commandeer the hotel, having Sophie and her sister cook for them every night, the painting catches the eye of the Kommandant, a man feared by the villagers.
Later we are confronted with a jolting change in time. Suddenly we are in England in modern times and introduced to Liv, who is now somehow in possession of the painting. She is a widow, struggling to move on, and clings to the painting as an emotional support. When she finally meets a man she thinks she could fall in love with, she learns he works for a company that restores paintings stolen in wartime to the families they belong to, and that her painting, The Girl You Left Behind, is being claimed by the family of the man who originally painted it.
This novel is two in one: a historical fiction account of what it was like to live in German occupied territory during WWI and the horrors that brings with it, and a modern court case driven thriller/mystery in the second half. In the beginning I wasn’t sure how I liked how lopsided it seemed to be…you never meet the present day characters until around halfway through the book, and then closer to the end it flips back and forth again a few times, but somehow it works.
I was reading the first half of Gone With the Wind (about the American Civil War) while listening to this novel on audio, and I think the wartime stories had a greater effect on me in both novels because of that. Both were terrible, bloody wars and it was difficult at times to read about them. It is quite graphic as it details the horrors of war…not gore from the front lines, but the starvation, pure fear, and destruction of a way of life that existed for those left behind.
*some spoilers in the following paragraph*
The modern piece wasn’t quite as good. To me it felt a lot more formulaic and bordered on unrealistic at times. Would Liv really have blatantly dug her heels in on the matter of keeping her painting without even considering the possibility of giving it back to the rightful family at all? I feel like there would probably have been moments of doubt whether she was doing the right thing, espcecially as those around her began to question it (and when she completely cut out Paul without even pretending to listen to what he had to say seemed odd to me, as they had really spent a lot of time together up to that point). Also how was Liv actually paying for everything? I feel like it was super improbable that she’d be able to get as far as she did financially from the spot she was in at the beginning (who would give her a second mortgage with so little money in the bank and presumably terrible credit). Why did Moe suddenly decide she wanted some space from her? And right when Liv needed her resilience and friendship the most? Because it made the dramatic timing of the plot right, that’s why. It was a little disappointing being able to see the blueprints behind the novel as I read, but those are my only complaints! Overall it was still a very good book and I will probably read it again one day.
My favorite character was Moe. Not only did she serve as the quirky silly friend, but she was just such a character! I could imagine her so clearly in my mind, and yet she was always surprising me. I loved how she came back into Liv’s life at the right moment and was able to bring her back to life a little bit, just by being there.
I would definitely recommend this book to a friend, as it was recommended to me. I have to say I enjoyed this book much more than Me Before You, and it gives me hope that Jojo Moyes has written other good books I’d enjoy. Any suggestions on what I should read next??