Book Talk: THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND, by Jojo Moyes


Pamela Dornan Books (August 2013), hardcover (ISBN 0670026611 / 9780670026616)
Fiction (historical), 384 pages
Source: Publisher

Opening lines:
“I was dreaming of food. Crisp baguettes, the flesh of the bread a virginal white, still steaming from the oven, and ripe cheese, its borders creeping toward the edge of the plate. Grapes and plums, stacked high in bowls, dusky and fragrant, their scent filling the air. I was about to reach out and take one, when my sister stopped me. ‘Get off,’ I murmured. ‘I’m hungry.’

“‘Sophie. Wake up.’

“I could taste that cheese. I was going to have a mouthful of Reblochon, smear it on a hunk of that warm bread, then pop a grape into my mouth. I could already taste the intense sweetness, smell the rich aroma.

“But there it was, my sister’s hand on my wrist, stopping me. The plates were disappearing, the scents fading. I reached out to them but they began to pop, like soap bubbles.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:France, 1916:  Artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his young wife, Sophie, to fight at the front. When their small town falls to the Germans in the midst of World War I, Edouard’s portrait of Sophie draws the eye of the new Kommandant. As the officer’s dangerous obsession deepens, Sophie will risk everything—her family, her reputation, and her life—to see her husband again. 

Almost a century later, Sophie’s portrait is given to Liv Halston by her young husband shortly before his sudden death. A chance encounter reveals the painting’s true worth, and a battle begins for who its legitimate owner is—putting Liv’s belief in what is right to the ultimate test.

Comments: Almost everyone I know who read Jojo Moyes’ last novel, Me Before You, loved it. I haven’t read it, other than an excerpt from the week it was the Fiction selection at the e-mail book club, which I have to confess didn’t leave me panting to read more. (Please don’t hate me.) Therefore, I was probably less enthusiastic than most members of the She Reads Book Club when Moyes’ latest, The Girl You Left Behind, was made our October selection, and I admit I approached it with some degree of prejudice. When I said last week that there are times I feel flat-out bored with fiction, this was the kind of fiction I had in mind.

And here’s where I admit that my prejudices were unfair, and that I’m glad to say I was wrong. The Girl You Left Behind wasn’t what I expected, and I was pleasantly surprised by that. Moyes has crafted an unusual dual-narrative blend of historical fiction and legal thriller that grapples with some of moral and ethical questions arising from the effects of war and keeps the modern-day romantic thread from overwhelming the rest of the story. Since I frankly considered that thread the weakest and most predictable element of the novel, I appreciated that.

Moyes’ great strength here is the development of her protagonists. Sophie and Liv, her two primary characters separated by nearly a century and connected by nothing more tangible than a painting, emerge as women facing down very different difficult circumstances each in her own way. Neither always makes the best choices, but the choices they do make feel true to both character and context. The narrative switches between past and present at well-timed intervals that kept me engaged as a reader, while my interest in the characters and the high quality of Moyes’ writing helped divert me from some predictable plotting.

The Girl You Left Behind wasn’t a “love” for me, but it was definitely a “like more than I thought I would,” and I consider that a pretty good response. That said, please check out what other She Reads bloggers had to say, because you’ll probably find quite a few who liked it more than I did.

Rating: 3.5 of 5

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