The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

I loved this book and I am unsure as to why it has taken me so long to read as it was a birthday present from my dear husband back in July 2020. Maybe it’s because I am running out of Jojo Moyes’ books to read.

It’s hard when you have an author whose books you know you will enjoy as the temptation is to read everything by that person in a glut of indulgent reading which will see your brain sated. But there will also be regret that that is it – there are no more. It’s done.

I find this difficult to face.

I see my limited supply of Moyes’ books as being like the remaining few Christmas chocolates, the chocolates that you only buy for the holidays once a year. And so, like the last After Eight, you see it there and you know that it will be a real treat, a melt-in-the-mouth delight whose sweet goodness is all too fleeting but the joy in the experience is wonderful. But you know that after it’s gone, there will no longer be any of that dark minty chocolatey goodness to savour. The box will be empty and the realms of mintiness will be found only in toothpaste and sugar free gum, chocolate being restricted due to tight trousers and a suddenly appearing belly shelf.

I think I’m down to two of Moyes’ books being left unread after this one and so, you can see with my vivid analogy, how much they mean to me and how bereft I will be when there are no longer any more to be discovered. You can always buy more After Eights but once the books are read…

And with reading in mind, on to the review.

I think that this is the best book that Moyes has written and I thought that that was a title that could not be topped by its previous holder, The Last Letter From Your Lover.

But this is a really well-written story with the great characters and dialogue which make Moyes’ books so vivid as well as a plot which unfolds at the right pace with twists and turns and highs and lows and surprises and shocks – you get the picture.

The book starts during war-occupied France during the First World War. Sophie Lefèvre lives with her sister Hélène in Le Coq Rouge in St Péronne. They run the hotel which is a gathering place for the locals, the hub of a town which is increasingly feeling like it is not their own due to the overbearing presence of the German army.

Both Sophie and Hélène’s husbands are at war, fighting for the liberation of France and so they are doing their best in the face of restriction and rations and fear to provide for Hélène’s children and their teenage brother, Aurélien.

Sophie’s marriage is to Edouard Lefèvre, a French painter from the school of Matisse and one whose paintings have been previously commissioned, his talent recognised and applauded. Their union is one filled with passion and longing and Moyes shows us through Sophie’s first person narrative how they meet and become lovers in Paris before the war. As with many wives of the time, she has an overwhelming need to see her husband again, the possibility of never being able to do this again a cause of great pain and heartache.

When the Germans arrive at Le Coq Rouge to claim a pig which is believed to be secreted there by Sophie and Hélène, we see Sophie’s quick thinking first hand as well as her bravery in the face of brutality. We also get a sense of someone who is proud to stand up for what is important to her and who will not cower easily. This is shown in her choice to display a portrait of herself in the public rooms of Le Coq Rouge, painted by Edouard. It is an intimate depiction, not nude but revealing and commanding nonetheless and it attracts the attention of the Kommandant, an art lover with an eye for technique and talent, who finds the picture beguiling.

When the Kommandant decrees that Le Coq Rouge will be the establishment which will provide the German army with sustenance, he becomes a regular visitor who seeks out Sophie for conversation and culture, knowing that she is able to discuss the finer things in life in a world which increasingly seems to be devoid of them and concerns itself instead with degradation and death.

Sophie and the Kommandant engage in an uneasy friendship which is subject to scrutiny by the close knit French community and her family. His tolerance for her provides her with the possibility of persuading him and influencing him, especially as he is keen for her to see his human qualities rather than just a hostile uniform. When Sophie hears of Edouard’s location, a bargaining opportunity presents itself to her whereby she could be reunited with her husband in exchange for something the Kommandant wants.

The life in the town is claustrophobic and there is a sense that everyone must tread a fine line in order to maintain an equilibrium. However, it is clear that any sort of collusion with the Germans is not tolerated by the locals who see defiance and the possibility of reprisals as preferable to accommodating the invaders.

This is shown most vividly in the treatment of Liliane Béthune, a local woman and mother who appears, by all accounts, to be the worst betrayer of the French: a woman who sleeps with the enemy and gains as a result – the finest clothes, money to buy provisions – but loses the respect of her countrymen and women. But is there more to Liliane than meets the eye?

Sophie’s story runs parallel to one from the present day where we find troubled young widow Liv Halston who finds herself increasingly lost in a world that thinks that she should really move on from the death of her husband. When she encounters an old university acquaintance called Mo at a restaurant, where she is being set up with a man by a well-meaning friend, and invites her to live with her, Liv at least has some long needed companionship. Previously, the only conversations she had were with her father about why his girlfriend had left him again and a brief exchange of words with and making cups of tea for the homeless lady, Fran who lives in the doorway to her apartment block.

One of the only things that brings her comfort in an existence in which her debts are rising, work is not forthcoming and her ability to move on emotionally is in stasis is a painting called The Girl You Left Behind which adorns her bedroom wall and was a gift from her husband. She has no idea of its worth or provenance but it is about to throw her life into turmoil when it is discovered to be a suspected war treasure acquired illegally by the Germans and becomes the subject of a bitterly fought legal battle.

Unfortunately for Liv, the person who has put her into this dilemma and will be fighting her in the courts is her possible new love interest, a kind man called Paul who helped her when her bag was stolen at his brother’s bar and who is the first person for whom she has felt a frisson of passion since her husband’s death.

Paul also happens to be a professional who recovers lost art works looted in the wars and for a fee, fights to return them to their original owners.

The picture is, of course, of Sophie Lefèvre, Edouard’s portrait from Le Coq Rouge and Moyes draws many parallels between Sophie’s and Liv’s characters, their relationships with their husbands and how the painting reflects an inner strength or radiance which not all people can see in them, it only being apparent to those most involved with them.

In finding out the history of the painting and whether Liv will be able to keep it, we learn what happens to Sophie and whether she ever becomes reunited with Edouard as she had always fervently hoped.

This has all the hallmarks of Moyes’ best work: romance in abundance but not without complications; great dialogue which make the characters feel real and well drawn; a plot which is woven deftly, revealing itself at just the right pace and leading to a satisfying conclusion which pleases and completes the book.

I can’t recommend it enough and I have a feeling that this book will not get left behind: it will always have a place on my shelf.

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