“The Girl You Left Behind” by Jojo Moyes is a poignant story told from the perspective of two women connected by a painting, though they lived almost nine decades apart.
In 1916, Sophie Bessett’s husband, Edouard Lèfevre, goes to fight in World War I, leaving Sophie and her sister to run a hotel, Le Coq Rouge, in the French town of St. Peronne. The Germans have occupied the village, and the hotel has no business. Their larders confiscated, villagers struggle to feed their children. The Kommandant shows up on the hotel doorstep, responding to rumors that the sisters have a live piglet, which they do.
While interrogating Sophie, the Kommandant notices the portrait of her that
Edouard had painted in Paris while studying under some of the great Impressionist masters. The Kommandant is knowledge-able about art and captivated by the painting, and a wary connection develops between him and Sophie. The connection, which challenges the reader’s natural sympathies, leads the townspeople to condemn her as a collaborator. Sophie decides to ask for the Kommandant’s help when she learns that Edouard has been sent to a prison camp. But Sophie is soon arrested and loaded onto a cattle truck. The author captures the details of life under occupation in this part of the novel.
The second part of the novel is set 90 years later in London. The portrait of Sophie hangs in the London house of 32-year-old Liv Halston, a cherished memory of her late husband David. He bought the portrait for Liv on their honeymoon in Barcelona.
Four years after David’s death, a Lefèvre descendant notices Sophie’s portrait in a magazine. David, a rising architect before his death, had allowed the magazine to photograph their house. The descendant demands the return of the portrait. Newspaper headlines appear about Nazi-looted art, even though the painting disappeared in World War I.
Though the Lefèvre descendant is not Jewish, the case does go to court. Writing about the documents produced at the trial, the author informs the reader about Sophie’s situation as well as Liv’s modern-day struggle, and looks at the issues surrounding stolen art.
Liv has begun to emerge from her grief over the loss of her husband when she meets Paul McCafferty, co-director of a firm specializing in in the return of artwork looted during wartime. But her feelings for him are challenged when she discovers his firm is representing the Lefèvre family.
JoJo Moyes writes convincingly about family, war, deception, loyalty and bravery in this intriguing story.