Jane's Reviews > The Girl You Left Behind

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes
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Aug 13, 2012

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Read in August, 2012

First time I've read Jojo Moyes, so I didn't know what to expect. Having just completed a Kate Atkinson-athon, the bar was high.

The Girl You Left Behind is all about loss and letting go. It's a bit of a harsher, more bitter verson of Vercors' Le Silence de la Mer, with Captain Corelli's Mandolin, mixed up with a bit of Michael Frayn's Headlong.

Part one of the novel opens in Northern France, under German occupation in the First World War. Sophie LeFèvre and her sister Hélène are running a hôtel in a small town, struggling with food shortages, unrelenting German brutality and cruelty and the dangers of being accused as collaborators. A new kommandant comes to the town, who develops a fixation with Sophie, and the painting of her by her husbuand Edouard which hangs in the bar. This section concludes with Sophie - having made desperate bid to persuade the Kommandant to save her husband, who she believes to be a prisoner of war - arrested and dragged from the town.

Part two opens in London 2006, where Sophie's painting hangs in the bedroom of grieving Olivia (Liv) Halston, widow of celebrated Architect David Halston. Liv, who has never managed to let go after suddenly losing her husband, is in dire financial straits - struggling to make ends meet, avoiding phone calls from her bank while she finds little copywriting jobs that don't pay enough. Rescued from a disastrous blind date by waitress, and former fellow student, Mo, Liv opens her life up a tiny bit and lets Mo move in "just for a night" extending for most of the story. This devil may care Goth friend helps Liv start to venture out of her gloom a little, and Liv meets Paul McCafferty who works for a firm that specialises in tracing artwork stolen by the Nazi's in WW2 and restoring them to the families who lost them.

Bizarrely, just as Liz opens her heart to the possibility of loving someone new, Paul's firm get the job of tracing the painting of Sophie, the eponymous The Girl You Left Behind. (Yes, the story of Sophie and her paining took place in WW1, but never mind)So a very strained relationship ensues, made more brittle by a full on court case between Liv and the descendents of Edouard LeFèvre, with high media and public attention, which threaten to destroy Liv financially, emotionally, and obliterate the memory of her husband.

Part two flicks back from time to time to catch up with Sophie's fate, while Liv tries in 2006 to piece together Sophie's story, and the provenance of the painting, which she can't bear to let go, as it was her husband's wedding gift.

I had mixed feelings about the book. The story unfolds at a decent pace, it kept me interested, and I read it in just over 24 hours. But I found plenty to irritate as well.

For one thing, not one German character in the WW1 sections, shows one single redeeming feature. I found this a serious failing in the novel. The occupation is carried out by two dimensional brutish Bosh, meting out mindless violence and cruelty at every turn. Unlike Vercors and De Bernières, Moyes isn't interested at all in the humans behind the uniforms, grappling with the moral struggle of enforcing the occupation and retaining their humanity - or if she is, she doesn't manage to get it across. The most complex German character is the Kommondant, but even he doesn't develop much. You never find out anything about his feelings or thoughts, and his obsession with Sophie and the painting are all reported by other characters. Which made it very difficult to swallow. There is a section, one Christmas Eve, where he tries to reach out to Sophie, which reminded me very much of Le Silence de la Mer - but without any insight at all into his heart or mind, it just didn't manage to convince.

I found Liv very difficult to warm to. She's someone who's obviously stuck in her grief, and is very isolated and uptight.

The whole plot line about the painting and the legal case was just strange - there's so much else going on in the book that a complex and uncommon piece of legal procedure struggles to fit in. I found myself more bothered about the rights and wrongs of restitution of art stolen by the Nazis, than about this painting. Which isn't what the book was about.

There were places where the writing felt quite stilted, particularly some bits of dialogue. The scene where Liv first meets Paul's brother and son felt like a badly scripted am-dram performance.

And there were plenty of annoying little details that seemed wrong - for example, Liv, furious with Paul, throws her mobile into the Thames when he tries to ring her - but a little later, even though her mobile is in the Thames and her landline unplugged, he successfully rings her - come on, this woman has just re-mortgaged her flat and is unable to scrape together £200 for her council tax! She can't afford grand gestures.

I also found there was a bit too much hinting at things significant but unseen - for example much is made of something written on the back of the painting, but it's not till the very end that we find out what that was, and really, I didn't think it mattered all that much. Liv at one point burns some pages of a diary she's obtained, and you're left guessing at the contents of those pages, but it's not clear why! And were they pages we've already read in the sections where Sophie tells her own story? So why the big mystery?

Some of the characters were very well written though. Liv - much as I disliked her - is a vivid and complex picture of hopelessly stuck loss, and anxiety and stress, and trembling girlish love. Her father, an out of work actor, is delightfully self centred and useless, and still capable of a moment of deep insight. If they ever film this, think Bill Nighy.

There's a lot in this novel - maybe too much.

But the central theme of loss, and clinging to lost love, is beautifully described and explored in different ways with the two women, Sophie and Liv who find different outcomes. And the contrast between the two women is well written - Sophie strong, resolute and determined, speaking for herself; Liv, vulnerable, self-doubting and presented in the third person.

Imperfect as it was, I'd have to say it was a good read, kept me turning pages, and made me cry at the right moment.
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