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.
Then a new German commandant arrives. He is attracted both to Sophie and to her portrait, and a chain of events is set in motion that will have dramatic and tragic results.
Just as Sophie’s story reaches a peak of excitement the action moves to 2006, when Liv is trying to cope with life as a young widow. Increasingly overwhelmed by her isolation – she has drifted apart from her friends since David’s death – and financial woes, her life starts to open up when she meets Paul, a charming American former cop who now runs an agency that restores stolen art to its original owners.
When Paul visits Liv’s home he realises she’s the owner of a painting he has been hired to track down: The Girl You Left Behind. The Lefevre family want it back, and soon Paul and Liv find themselves on opposite sides of a nasty court case.
Initially, I was troubled by what seemed to be a suggested correlation between the opportunistic looting and requisitioning by the kaiser’s army in the Great War and the systematic theft of Jewish families’ possessions by the Nazis, but as the book goes on the fact that many people confuse the two situations becomes part of the plot, as Liv’s determination to hold on to the painting makes her a public hate figure. Moyes paces the story well, moving between her two time periods in a way that keeps the reader emotionally invested in both women’s fates.
In fact this is commercial fiction at its finest. Publishers may be churning out Fifty Shades of Grey clones, but I can’t help wishing they’d focus on this sort of good writing and compelling characterisation instead.
The Girl You Left Behind contains several sex scenes. One is deliberately uncomfortable; the others convey real heat without resorting to Fisher Price sex dungeons.
This is a book that should be read while spending an entire day curled on the couch with a series of cups of tea. Not only was I glued to its pages throughout, but the ending is enormously satisfying – and, yes, I did have something in my eye. The fate not only of the heroines but also of the painting they both love is in doubt until the final pages, by which stage it has become clear to both Sophie and Liv that objects, no matter how beautiful, are never as important as the people around them. Now that’s romantic.
Anna Carey’s first book, The Real Rebecca, won the Senior Children’s Book of the Year prize at the 2011 Irish Book Awards. The sequel, Rebecca’s Rules, is out now