In the wake of two World Wars, much has been written about the atrocities visited upon the citizens of countries occupied by Germany. Not the least of these tragedies is the millions of dollars worth of artwork stolen by the German soldiers, pieces which represented much more than just a painting on a wall or a statue on a table. To the families who were victimized, these treasures were part and parcel of the dehumanization which destroyed entire families, wrecked lives and left deep scars which persisted for generations.
When one of these stolen artworks is found and can be returned to its rightful owner, the event is usually seen as a celebratory discovery, a chance to help heal the wounds and right the wrongs that happened so many years ago, and yet are so fresh in the minds of those who suffered them. But, as we see in Jojo Moyes’ latest The Girl You Left Behind, it’s not always as simple as that.
During World War I, in the midst of the German occupation of France, life in the French village of St. Peronne is a daily misery. The townspeople are starving, their houses and larders plundered by the occupying German soldiers. Even worse, St. Peronne has become a village of skinny women, hollow-eyed children and shuffling old men. All of the able-bodied men of the village have left to fight the Germans on the front which pushes ever deeper into France. For newlywed Sophie Lefevre, living with her sister and running the town’s only hotel, the Coq Rouge, all she can think of is her husband, artist Edouard, suffering on the front lines miles away. Her only consolation is the portrait he painted of her before their marriage, which hangs in the hotel and reminds her of happy, hopeful days now long in the past.
But Sophie is not the only one who admires the portrait. When the picture captures the eye of the German Kommandant, the Coq Rouge becomes the restaurant of choice for the occupying Germans. Every night, Sophie and her sister are forced to cook for and serve the detested soldiers, and while the extra food helps stave off starvation for the family, the unwanted German attention draws jealousy and distrust from Sophie’s beleaguered fellow townspeople.
Gradually, Sophie develops a friendship of sorts with the cold-eyed Kommandant, who shows a rare but intriguing human side when he reveals his love of art. His admiration of Sophie’s portrait grows into a dangerous obsession, and when Sophie receives word that Edouard has been captured and taken to a prison camp, she makes a fateful decision: she will use the Kommandant’s evident desire for her to save her husband from certain death in the camps.
The book fast-forwards 100 years to London in the present day. The painting, titled The Girl You Left Behind, now hangs on the wall of Liv Halston, a young widow still reeling from the untimely death of her beloved husband David. The painting, a wedding gift from Halston’s husband, is one of the only links, and perhaps the most powerful one, between Liv and David, and perhaps her most prized possession in a world which has become lonely, alien and hopeless.
Liv goes out on a limb and begins dating a new man, only to discover that her boyfriend Paul is involved in the retrieval of artwork stolen during the First and Second World Wars…and not just any artwork. Paul is attempting to get back the very painting that hangs in Liv’s bedroom and reminds her every day of her lost husband. Loath to give it up, Liv vows to fight for the painting which has come to hold special meaning for her, even if it bankrupts her. The more she discovers about the enigmatic Sophie Lefevre, the more she recognizes a special kinship with the long-dead woman, and becomes more determined to keep the painting where she feels it belongs. And the Lefevre family, who want the painting so desperately, may have dark secrets of their own.
This book is a beautifully written piece of historical fiction which captures succinctly and with heart-wrenching detail the indignities and torments visited on the captured and the occupied during the First World War, events often overshadowed by the horrors of WWII. At the same time, it’s also a finely-wrought modern-day love story, and an exploration of the depths of grief and the power of the healing process. While not as much of a tear-jerker as some of Moyes’ other novels, this one is a fascinating read, well-researched and well-written, which will keep you flipping pages.