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