The Girl You Left Behind
By Jojo Moyes, Penguin, 529pp. £7.99
FICTION:A LOVE STORY like Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion can be appreciated on several levels. You can admire and delight in its often savage wit, its moving depiction of life as an unmarried woman in the early 19th century, its oblique views of the Napoleonic Wars. But if many of us who love that book are being honest, it all comes down to one achingly romantic moment: the scene in which Anne Elliot, the supposedly faded spinster, discovers Captain Wentworth’s letter and realises he has always loved her, a moment that has had readers sniffing and telling their families, “No, there’s just something in my eye,” for nearly 200 years.
Creating a couple of convincing characters, making the reader care about them, putting obstacles and misunderstandings in their way and then, when all hope is lost, finally letting them be together – or dividing them forever, à la Brief Encounter – are the ingredients of a truly fine romance.
Skilful and insightful writers ensure few literary pleasures are quite so satisfying. And the British novelist Jojo Moyes’s last book, Me Before You, was a very satisfying romance. Moyes told the story of a young woman who goes to work for a charismatic, angry and quadriplegic man with wit and compassion but, remarkably, without sentimentality.
There was nothing formulaic about that book, not least because its ending wasn’t predictable. In some of the most sophisticated love stories, the outcome is never really in doubt – no one seriously thinks Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy aren’t going to end up together – but there’s something uniquely enjoyable about a romance when you’re not exactly sure who will end up with whom, or even if the lead characters will eventually get together at all.
Me Before You left many readers, including me, in floods of tears, which in the context of a romance novel is a very good thing (and surprisingly hard to pull off). So expectations were high for the follow-up. The Girl You Left Behind doesn’t disappoint. It’s the story of two brave young women, both of whom have been unwillingly “left behind” by the men they love.
In 1916 Sophie Lefevre is living with her sister in their family’s hotel in a small French town while their husbands are at the front. In 2006 Liv Halston is still mourning her husband, David, who died suddenly four years earlier. The two women are linked by a painting called The Girl You Left Behind, a portrait of Sophie by her artist husband, Edouard, which Liv now owns.
The story begins in 1916 as Sophie, her family and their neighbours struggle with the grim realities of life under German occupation. The occupation of France during the first World War is much less well known, in this part of the world at least, than the Nazi occupation 25 years later. But Moyes has done her research, and the reader is soon immersed in Sophie’s world, where everyone is permanently cold, hungry and full of justified fear and resentment.