Frankly, any novel that begins with a description of breads “still steaming from the oven,” and cheeses with borders “creeping toward the edge of the plate” has my heart. That the novel opens in France during World War I with a heroine so eloquently created that you feel that she is you, well, that is almost too generous.
The Girl You Left Behind opens with Sophie Lefevre managing her family’s inn during the German occupation of the small town of St. Peronne. Her husband, a painter who studied under Matisse, is off fighting on the front lines while she is forced to cook and serve German troop led by a particularly interesting Kommandant all under the watchful eye of the painting of the Sophie she used to be, The Girl You Left Behind. That is the title of the portrait her husband painted of her during the height of her youth and happiness in Paris. Now she is starved because of unforgiving rationing and missing her husband and their life filled with good food, good art, and joie de vivre.
That painting draws unwanted attention from the German Kommandant, but ultimately could be her only way back to her true love. Her story is frought with danger and iniquities and her character is so richly drawn that you’ll feel like you know her in your soul.
I’m not sure I’ve ever loved a character more.
Then the novel flashes forward to present day leaving us wondering about Sophie’s ultimate fate so many years ago. And then you become completely enthralled with Liv.
The painting, a wedding gift from her husband, now resides in Liv Halston’s home, the one her husband built before he died unexpectedly. Liv is struggling with the grief of losing her young husband and with the financial burden that she has now that he is dead and she doesn’t have a steady income. The painting is her one prized possession.
The two women are drawn together because of the painting, but not before war crimes are uncovered, lives are turned upside down, and truths are revealed. Moyes seamlessly ties the lives of these two women separated by almost a century of time, but held intimately together in the story of a haunting painting.
As Sophie so eloquently states in the novel,
This was the story of our lives: minor insurrections; tiny victories; a brief chance to ridicule our oppressors; little floating vessels of hope amid the great sea of uncertainty, deprivation, and fear.
JoJo Moyes is certainly one of my new favorite authors. I can’t imagine a greater October luxury than a crisp sunlit day on a porch swinging and reading this novel.