The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes | Penguin Canada | Hardcover, 384 pages
Publication date: August 13th, 2014 | Adult Fiction | Historical | Romance
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“Will it buy my husband his freedom? Will…will I buy my husband his freedom?”
The story began in World War 1, most specifically during the invasion of France by Germany. In a small town ruled by German forces, Sophie and her sister ran a cafe/bar called, Le Coq Rouge. Situation was dire as both their husbands were fighting the war; and the only man in the house was their teenage brother full of spite and bad temper. One night, when the Germans came knocking at their door with an accusation of theft, Herr Kommandant came face to face with strong willed, Sophie Lefèvre. She stood her ground, talked back to an officer, risked punishment by telling them exactly what they can do with their accusations. Herr Kommandant was stunned, and a little taken with the beauty who showed him no fear. That wasn’t the only thing that rendered him speechless, however. It was a painting of a girl full of life, desire and passion. Not at all the same girl who stood before him. It was Sophie, of course, painted by Edward Lefèvre, her husband before they got married.
Herr Kommandant was inexplicably drawn to the painting as much as he was drawn to Sophie. Every night since then, he commissioned Le Coq Rouge to provide dinner for him and for his troop. Sophie risked being hated by her neighbours, and their allegations of being a German sympathizer. But Sophie was not a selfish person, nor did she care of what they thought of her. As long as her family was eating, and she was able to provide leftover food to those in need, she continued to cook for Herr Kommandant. Besides, she’d become accustomed to his company; and their discussions about Art sated the ache of missing her husband.
But when the cruelty of the Nazi regime became even more obvious, and her husband was taken to a camp, Sophie had nowhere to turn to but Herr Kommandant.
Sophie’s story began when she was taken by the Germans on accusations of insurgence. When she thought that the Herr Kommandant came through with his promise for her to be reunited with her husband. What happens to the painting after that, becomes the crux of Liv Halston’s story, almost a century later.
I’m sorry to have written such a long summary for Sophie’s story. I feel that hers is the major draw for this book. I must admit that I felt guilty for being giddy with the forbidden romance between Kommandant Henchken and Sophie, mainly because romanticizing such a dark period in the world history is wrong. The lives lost at the time, the torture that the victims endured, and the preamble to what was to be an even more unimaginable horrors yet to come are just hard to think of but nightmarish.
Jojo Moyes captured the sombre and frightful air of a town besieged by enemies. It was a bleak world; one where supplies were controlled by the German forces, and people were hungry and afraid. Cut off from the world, post was hard to come by. Especially if they were expecting to hear from loved ones battling in the front. Here, we saw people doing what they can to salvage what was left of their riches (by burying them in their garden), and hiding missives received from loved ones. The author took great pains in making sure she captured the aura of the times, and have given justice to the sufferings of the French people.
The second part of this story is set in the modern times. It was the story of a struggling widow, Liv Halston. Her husband was a brilliant architect who died in his sleep, leaving her with an enormous house a single woman can’t afford. She’s already struggling to make ends meet, so when her purse was stolen on a night when she wanted to forget her troubles by getting smashed, she just about gave up. Enter Paul McCafferty, an expat who finds lost art for a living. Fate is such a cruel bitch. Instant connection between the two stymied by The Girl You Left Behind, a painting that was believed to have been stolen by the Germans during the war.
It was interesting to see the process of how some of the looted art during the war are being recovered. The amount of research required and the how such a delicate thing is being handled. A lot of people wouldn’t be so quick to contest a stolen art, so it was also interesting to see what kind of hostility a person would face in such a case where they refuse to hand it over.
I could go on for miles about this book. All I can say is, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. This coming at the heels of reading Night Film by Marisha Pessl, another book that I’d gladly shout praises until practically everyone I know have added it to their shelves. All you need to know is that Jojo Moyes will not fail you. The woman can turn something uncouth into something understandable, and can incite empathy to someone whose political belief was rooted in hate.