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The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking; 384 pages; $27.95).

           girl This book is not just about a painting; it’s not just about a wife left behind during wartime; it’s not just about a young widow whose husband died unexpectedly; it’s not just about a random girl a guy meets in a bar; it’s not just about a bitter woman whose German husband was an officer occupying a foreign country; and it’s not just about a beloved sister whose family never spoke of her again.  The title of Jojo Moyes’ incredibly affecting and thought-provoking third novel The Girl You Left Behind (her second was the 2012 breakout word-of-mouth bestseller Me Before You) has multiple meanings throughout her absorbing narrative.   One thing, though, is certain: her powerful female characters will linger long after you close the book.

Employing a dual narrative format, Moyes moves from World War I-era occupied France to 2006 London.  In 1916, Sophie struggles to feed her family; she watches as her family and her village collapse.  Her husband fights for France, while Sophie skirmishes just as he does but on another battlefield, one immensely more complicated.  After German forces take control of her family’s hotel, Sophie and her husband’s painting, The Girl You Left Behind, draw the eye of the Kommandant.  When the enemy takes her spouse prisoner, Sophie will use every means at her disposal to free him.  In 2006, Liv labors to stay in the home her late husband, an architect, built.  Bills pile up, and work is difficult to find.  She cherishes a piece of artwork her husband gave to her as a wedding present during their honeymoon to Barcelona.  Entitled The Girl You Left Behind, the painting symbolizes their happy life together.  When Liv learns the painting was perhaps a spoil of war, she is determined to fight to keep her most prized possession.

Both Sophie and Liv are strong women who threaten to leap off Moyes’ pages, and thank goodness for that.  I loved these ladies; moyesthrough her narrators, Moyes explores such universal themes as conflict, faithfulness, survival, loss, restitution, property rights, and love.   I identified with both women equally, even though Moyes writes them very differently, varying perspective and tense as she tells their stories.

Equally impressive and bold are Moyes’ minor female characters: Mo, lovingly quirky, gives Liv a dose of tough love; Louanne Baker, brash and ballsy American reporter covering the American liberation of Nazi concentration camps, who comes alive in her journals; and Liliane, perhaps the bravest in the whole book, who risks her life for her village and for her country.

If you enjoy reading novels set during wartime (like Sarah’s Key) or stories in which artwork features prominently in the story (such as Pictures of an Exhibition or The Art Forger), I highly recommend The Girl You Left Behind.  Moyes’ tale will resonate with anyone who has ever fought for the person or thing she loves most in the world.  I never thought Moyes would ever be able to top Me Before You, but, amazingly, she does!  Some advice—don’t let this be the book you left behind.

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes is the She Reads October Book Club Selection.  To read more reviews of the book, enter exciting giveaways, connect with other readers, and discuss the story, please visit She Reads.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty (Amy Einhorn Books; 416 pages; $25.95)

husband secretIt’s every widow’s worst nightmare.  You are going through your deceased husband’s desk to find an envelope, addressed to you, with the foreboding words: “To be opened only in the event of my death.”  But imagine if you were still a wife– not yet a widow, with a husband very much alive–a devoted mother, and a fixture of the community.  Imagine if your life was just about perfect.  This is exactly what happens to Cecilia Fitzpatrick, the main character in Liane Moriarty’s engaging and, above all, human fifth novel aptly titled The Husband’s Secret.

What would you do?  Do you open it?  Do you risk everything?  Do you really, truly want to know the possible deep, dark secrets held within?  And once you know—what then?  Once the secret is out, it can never be taken back.  Can’t you just see the story in the “Can This Marriage Be Saved” section of one of your mom’s old Ladies’ Home Journal Magazines?

Cecilia has already discovered the letter when Moriarty opens her narrative.  It’s not until page 144 that Cecilia finally opens the missive to read the secrets held within.  I think she showed incredible restraint.  Moriarty tends to ramble as she shows us Cecilia’s inner struggles—to open the letter or not to open the letter.  The author’s tactic is purposeful and full of meaning.  Cecilia’s once orderly and careful world changes rapidly, literally within seconds.  She has gone from the woman who had everything together to a directionless, unsettled person.  After all she has been through, who wouldn’t be all jumbled?

Moriarty superbly compares Cecilia’s opening the letter to Pandora opening the jar from which “all those dreadful ills would go whooshing out to plague mankind forevermore.” Willpower loses out to natural curiosity in most instances.  In this way, The Husband’s Secret is very real and relatable.  We’re all human, and Moriarty puts both a human and humane spin on this tale.

So many different scenarios spun through my head as I wondered exactly what the husband’s secret would be.  I admit I have a very active imagination.  Okay, here we go.  He’s got to be a terrorist, and he decides he will only confess after his death.  Or this: He’s planning on assassinating the president.  I mean—come on, he does have three names after all—classic future president killer.  Or yet: He has to be in the witness protection program.  He’s hiding from the Mafia.  Or still: He is leading a double life, with another wife and family.  For me, the latter seemed to be the most common scenario, and I cheered when none of the above came to fruition.  Moriarty manages to keep her premise fresh and different, and she succeeds in engaging the reader and keeping her guessing.

The Husband’s Secret a pure joy to read.  Moriarty creates an honest rendering of a marriage, of a life, and of a family.  So many moriartyemotions permeate these pages, and Moriarty captures each and every one of them perfectly.  We’re all imperfect and heavily flawed.  We’re all human.  We just cannot resist letters or even jars, despite what they might contain.  And that’s all part of the fun of life.  The Husband’s Secret will surely be a hit with book clubs as the story will resonate with women of all ages.  I suspect many women will take the discussion from the book club back home to the bedroom.

 The Husband’s Secret is the September Book Club Selection of She Reads.

For other reviews of the novel, fun giveaways, discussions, and more, visit She Reads!

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She Reads July Book Club Selection: The Firebird

Book Review: The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley (Sourcebooks Landmark; 544 pages; $16.99).

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Spanning centuries and continents, The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley fuses history with mystery, romance, and the supernatural and will appeal to a wide range of readers.  Unfortunately, that did not include me. Although I did not love the story, I did not totally abhor it either.  My reaction was rather lukewarm.  Perhaps that is because of the way Kearsley writes her tale.  Half of this story is a tantalizing page-turner and the other half is as dull as a two-hundred-year-old blade.

Kearsley concentrates her narrative lens on two very different women in The Firebird: Nicola and Anna.

Nicola Marter has an extraordinary ability.  She has ESP but prefers to hide this gift lest her career as an art gallery assistant suffer for it. Even those closest to her do not know her secret. But when a woman dying of cancer claims an object that has been in her family for years once belonged to Empress Catherine of Russia, Nicola cannot ignore her visions.

She knows the lady is telling the truth.  When Nicola touches the piece, she glimpses the empress bestowing a small wooden carving called the “Firebird” upon Anna, the woman’s ancestor.  This revelation intrigues Nicola.  With her former lover, Rob, in tow, Nicola travels to Russia, determined to learn more about Anna.

Connection with the enigmatic and dynamic Nicola is effortless.  She literally jumps off of Kearsley’s pages.  Nicola drew me into this story; Nicola is the reason I kept reading.  I would characterize her narrative as exciting and suspenseful and even purposeful.  However, I felt no such bond whatsoever with Anna, who bored me immensely.   Compared to Nicola, Anna was simplistic, muted, and wearying.

I kept expecting the author to somehow link together Nicola and Anna.  Where on earth did I get such an idea?  From this: “Two women.  One mysterious relic.  Separated by centuries.”  It just did not turn out quite the way I had envisaged.

Kearsley does inject two fulfilling and absorbing subplots into her story.  The chemistry between Nicola and Rob, a fascinating minor character, sizzles.  Rob also enjoys extra sensory perception, but his talents are much stronger than Nicola’s.  In one instance, he sees the specter of a Roman soldier, and I got goose bumps.  Anna’s descendant, the cancer-stricken woman now in possession of the Firebird, wants to go on a cruise around the world before she dies but lacks the funds for her trip.  The ultimate source of her dream vacation is a priceless and clever addition.

I love that Kearsley writes about real people, events, and issues in her story; she truly helps bring the past to our present.  But it’s not enough here.  While Nicola’s narrative piqued my curiosity, Anna’s story barely held my interest.  I wanted more substance from The Firebird but never got it.

Kearsley desperately wants readers to connect with Anna, or at least that’s the vibe I get from the way in which she tells the tale.  Instead of taking us directly to the point when Anna receives the Firebird, Kearsley gives us a window into Anna’s early life.  As Kearsley meanders, the story loses mass and borders on futility.  My mind wandered, as I hoped in vain that a turn of the page would get me back to Nicola’s chronicle.

The problem is with Anna.  She cannot compete with Nicola.  Anna is not a powerful enough narrator and fails to take command of the page.  It’s a shame really because Kearsley clearly has talent.  Too bad she couldn’t have written less Anna and more Roman soldier.  That would have been a novel I would have gone mad for.

The Firebird is the July Book Club Selection for She Reads.  To read other reviews of this book, enter fun giveaways, and discuss the story, visit She Reads.

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Book Review: And Then I Found You by Patti Callahan Henry

And Then I Found You by Patti Callahan Henry (St. Martin’s Press; 272 pages; $24.99).

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For Katie Vaughn, the first day of spring was always a day of firsts: the day she experienced her first kiss, the day she fell in love, the day she ran a marathon, the day she opened her boutique, and the day she vowed to love Jack Adams forever.  It was also the day she gave up her newborn for adoption in Patti Callahan Henry’s tender, sincere, and deeply poignant novel And Then I Found You, the April Book Club Selection for She Reads.

For Kate, the first day of spring held more than blooming daffodils.  It was still a day of firsts.  Kate had a ritual, a sacred ritual.  She made sure that she did something she’d never done before, something that would count as new on the first day of spring.  Six years ago she’d opened her boutique.  The year before that she ran a marathon with her sister.  Of course there was that trip to California with Norah.  Then four years ago the midnight swim in the darkest water with Rowan, the first time he’d visited her in South Carolina.  It didn’t matter what she did or said or saw as long as it hadn’t been done, or said, or seen before.

The plot of And Then I Found You is as swiftly-paced as the current of Katie’s beloved South Carolina River.  Katie is successful and in a loving relationship with her boyfriend, Rowan.  When she accidentally stumbles upon an engagement ring he bought for her, Katie comes to a crossroads of sorts.  She thought she loved Rowan, but now she finds herself unsure.  The problem is Jack, her first love and the father of Luna, the baby she gave away all those years ago.

To go on with her life, Katie feels like she has to see Jack and talk to him.  Maybe then she can have the closure she needs.  But once Katie travels to Birmingham, Jack’s home, old feelings resurface for them both.

Henry tells the story from the very different perspectives of 35-year-old Katie and 13-year-old Emily Jackson, Katie’s biological daughter.  I truly admired how Henry managed to realistically capture both points of view.  In And Then I Found You, Henry also takes us back and forth through time to provide windows into Katie’s past, crucial moments we must know to better understand her and the narrative. 

And Then I Found You is told with such honesty and heart because, for Henry, it is very personal.  Life often imitates art, but sometimes art can imitate life.

In the story, Katie has two younger sisters.  One, Tara, is a writer.  When Emily begins an online search for her biological mother, links to Tara come up over and over.  Emily contacts Tara through Facebook; this social media connection leads to a reunion.

As Henry explains in her letter to readers at the front of her novel, And Then I Found You is loosely based on a true story.  Henry’s sister placed her baby up for adoption over 21 years ago.  “It was the most heartrending, courageous and difficult decision she had ever made, and we all wept with her when she handed her baby girl to an anonymous, yet hand-chosen family,” Henry writes.  Then, one day, two years ago, Henry received “a Facebook friend request from a young girl with the same birthday as my adopted niece.  It was too much to hope for, almost too miraculous to believe.  But it was true: My sister’s daughter, my niece, found us on Facebook.”  Henry emphasizes the awesome power of social media in her story, and simultaneously inspires and moves us, yes, to tears.

Henry drew me in from the very first page, and I read this novel in one sitting, as I could not tear myself away; I had to find out what would happen.  I was surprised to enjoy this novel as much as I did.  Initially, I worried it would be too sappy and too romantic for my tastes, but my concerns were for naught.

Passionate, stirring, and full of sentiment, this is a story about first love, family, mistakes, forgiveness, and second chances.  I predict readers will fall in love with And Then I Found You, a perfect read for book clubs because it’s so easy to like Henry’s characters.  And Then I Found You is destined to become one of the summer’s hottest beach reads.  Throw this title in your beach bag but don’t forget the sunscreen and sunglasses!

For more reviews, discussions, and giveaways, visit She Reads.

Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry

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Spotlight on The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

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I totally fell in love with The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski.  Leganski grew up in Wisconsin, but, you’d swear she was Southern.  Bonaventure Arrow cannot speak, yet he speaks loudly and clearly within Leganski’s pages.

This is a haunting, atmospheric story, uniquely Southern, replete with lyricism and magical realism.

A lyrical debut novel set in historic New Orleans that follows a mute boy whose gift of magical hearing reveals family secrets and forgotten voodoo lore, and exposes a murder that threatens the souls of those who love him.

Bonaventure Arrow didn’t make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead.  But he was only listening, placing sound inside quiet and gaining his bearings.  By the time he is five, he can hear flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature trumpets that rage inside raindrops.  He also hears the voice of his dead father, William Arrow, mysteriously murdered before Bonaventure was born by a man known only as the Wanderer.

One day, Bonaventure’s world is shaken by anguished voices he’s never heard before–voices that trace back to a note written by his mother, Dancy, to a particular relic owned by his Grand-mere Letice: objects kept by each as a constant reminder of the guilt she believes she deserves.  When Bonaventure removes the note and the relic from where they’ve been hidden, he opens two doors to the past and finds the key to a web of secrets that both holds his family together and threatens to tear them apart.  With the help of his kindred spirit, Trinidad Prefontaine, Bonaventure sets out to calm these secrets and to release his family from a painful legacy.

Rita-Leganski

Rita Leganski holds an MA in writing and publishing and a BA in literary studies and creative writing from DePaul University.  She teaches a writing workshop at DePaul’s School for New Learning and was a recipient of the Arthur Weinberg Memorial Prize for a work of historical fiction.

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow will be released February 26.  Look for my interview with Leganski on March 4 (and a possible giveaway) and a book review on March 5.  She Reads has chosen this book for its March Book Club Selection.

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