The Girl You Left Behind – Jojo Moyes’ novel of the portrait of a French artist’s wife and the war that intervened, separating by death and theft the painting, the artist, and his wife.
The title of Jojo Moyes’ novel, The Girl You Left Behind, is also the title of the painting that lies at the heart of the story. Edouard Lefevre, a gifted member of Matisse’s school in pre-World War I Paris, painted his beloved wife Sophie shortly before he left for the front. As the war progressed with no word from her husband, Sophie felt his love every time she looked at “The Girl You Left Behind.” It hung in her family’s St. Peronne restaurant, where she and her sister tended bar, served whatever food they could scrounge, chatted with the townspeople in what had become occupied France, and waited for their absent husbands to return. It hung there after invading Germans commandeered the bar. There, it attracted the attention of a German officer, as did Sophie.
Ninety years later, “The Girl You Left Behind” now hangs in the bedroom of Liv Halston, a widow whose husband bought the painting in Spain as a wedding present for his bride. Liv sees the nameless girl as her soulmate, believing that she, too, was a girl left behind by a husband who died when they were far too young. David Halston had been a stylish London architect of some repute. Shortly before his death, their modernistic home was featured in a slick architectural and décor magazine. A photo of the Halston’s bedroom included the painting hanging on the wall.
Edouard Lefevre’s reputation had grown significantly in the intervening years. His work is now worth millions, so his heirs are systematically searching for paintings lost during two world wars. When they realize Liv possesses a Lefevre work, they want it. But because they show little interest in his artistry or even in the story of his love for Sophie, Liv is horrified by the thought of giving up her cherished painting only to have it sold to the highest bidder. She hires her own barristers and begins her search. Investigating, Liv grows even more intrigued by Sophie’s story and grows even more determined to prove her own claims to “The Girl You Left Behind.”
The mystery of the painting’s provenance, and where it languished for nearly a century, keeps the reader turning the novel’s pages as quickly as possible. Moyes begins her book by detailing Sophia’s life in St. Peronne without her husband, her interactions with her family and with the nearby villagers, and the complexity introduced by the German occupation. Then Moyes switches to Liv’s point of view, her preoccupation with David’s memory, and her obsession about the painting that symbolizes their love. After the reader becomes thoroughly involved with Liv, Moyes reintroduces Sophie and then melds the two women’s stories together. Of course, the two complement one another, so there are neat structural parallels in the latter part of the novel that Moyes handles prudently.
I also appreciated the seamless unveiling of information about “The Girl You Left Behind.” Interviews, documents, even a flashy show trial all move the plot along nicely. The trial, in fact, is quite intriguing, for most of the legal precedents involve art stolen by the Nazis. How to make a legal case, or a rebuttal on Liv’s side, when the painting in question devolved from World War I? The legal issues are tricky, as is the provenance of “The Girl You Left Behind.” And nothing is certain until the very last page of The Girl You Left Behind!
Also available by Jojo Moyes: The Last Letter from Your Lover; One Plus One; Windfallen; Sheltering Rain; The Horse Dancer; The Ship of Brides; The Peacock Emporium; Silver Bay; Night Music; Foreign Fruit; Honeymoon in Paris; Me Before You; The Giver of Stars.
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