Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind By Jojo Moyes

Reviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

 

Jojo Moyes C Phyllis ChristopherJojo Moyes is the bestselling, English author of Me Before You, considered her “breakout novel” in 2012, after having had eight books published before that.

Her newest novel, The Girl You Left Behind, won kudos last year in Britain, and it was just released in the United States in August (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking). The author will be discussing and signing The Girl You Left Behind Tuesday, September 17, at Warwick’s Books in La Jolla, at 7:30 p.m.

Moyes’ prose in The Girl You Left Behind is often captivating. She gracefully weaves contemporary polemics into a storyline that compels the reader to travel through ambiguity—and time—with her imperfect and fascinating characters.

Part One of The Girl You Left Behind begins in 1916, in the throes of World War I, in the German-occupied fictional town of St. Péronne, France (perhaps modeled on the actual town of Péronne, which was destroyed during the war).

Cover Girl You Left Behind LargWith her opening scene, Moyes plunges the reader into the depravation, fear and dark humor of wartime occupation. Despite the oppression, protagonist Sophie Bessett Lefèvre cleverly refuses to submit to the German’s brutal bullying. Her boldness attracts the attention of a new Kommandant, who proceeds to obsess on Sophie and a painting of her by her beloved husband, Édouard, who is off fighting the war. The author also introduces a compelling issue: the often ambiguous line between consorting with the enemy and resistance. Sophie’s eventual effort to negotiate access to her captured husband pits her against the Kommandant’s obsession and her human frailties. Part One concludes with uncertainty about everyone’s fates.

Part Two introduces Sophie’s contemporary counterpart, Liv Halston, whose struggles, in 2006, parallel Sophie’s. Liv has lost her husband, she is on the verge of economic ruin, and she suffers a crisis of identity amidst public censure, erupting from a battle over the provenance of Sophie’s painting, given to Liv by her husband before his death. In this section, Moyes challenges the reader to consider the question of the restitution of wartime plunder—and, perhaps, its broader contexts: the post-war division of lands in the Middle East, Jewish bank accounts in Switzerland, Europe’s looting of North and South America, even the uncertain rights to music or images or writings appropriated by others on the Internet. Ours is an acquisitive culture, but what is actually mine—and why?

The questions posed by the author are as compelling as is her representation of the parallel lives of her protagonists, for whom courage is, ultimately, a defining force. Although some of Moyes’ previous books have been described as romance novels, The Girl You Left Behind proves her ability to reach a broader audience with a powerful story of family, war, deception, loyalty and acceptance.

Moyes’ occasional lapse into expository writing is a minor distraction from her lovely prose. A wee bit more of a distraction is some weak plotting in Part Two, with key characters reappearing and inexplicably disappearing again. But her gift for storytelling overcomes both, giving the reader a moving and satisfying tale that nonetheless provokes self-examination.

Moyes wrote of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, “[I]f it isn’t perfect, then it has enough absolutely fantastic moments that it’s worth a read.” Such moments are abundant in The Girl You Left Behind.

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Photo credit: Phyllis Christopher