The thorny question of whether --- and how --- to return artworks stolen during time of war to their rightful owners is one that crops up in the news from time to time, especially regarding the thousands of works of art stolen from Jewish Europeans by their Nazi occupiers during World War II. In her new novel, THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND, Jojo Moyes considers this question through the lens of fiction.
Moyes (perhaps shrewdly) avoids incorporating the Nazi connection, instead setting the historical portions of her novel during the First World War, in a rural area of northern France occupied by the German military. In the tiny town of St Péronne, Sophie Lefèvre operates a restaurant with her sister, Hélène. The two young women are alone, their husbands having been taken into custody by the Germans. Conditions in the town are awful during the winter of 1916-17; everyone is on the brink of starvation, and Sophie is desperate to keep her little family alive while waiting for her beloved husband, Édouard, to return home.
"Moyes's novel does an admirable job of illustrating the complexities of restitution and of showing the personal stories that might reside behind the headlines."
Édouard is a painter, a lesser-known member of the Impressionist school who studied under Matisse. Sophie's most prized possession is a portrait he painted of her early in their relationship, a sensual portrait that shows Sophie at her most beautiful and fearless. When the German Kommandant begins to demand that Sophie feed his officers at her restaurant (providing extra rations for her to feed herself and her family as well) and takes a keen interest both in Sophie and in the portrait of her, the desperate young woman begins to consider a bargain with the enemy that could have wide and lasting consequences.
Almost a hundred years later, another grieving young woman, this time in London, also adores the portrait of Sophie, which her late husband David bought for her off a sidewalk sale in the early days of their marriage. Now Liv is alone in the beautiful but chilly home that David, an architect, designed for them. She's on the verge of healing from his death and being ready to explore a new relationship --- but little does she know that a chance romantic encounter will change her life forever.
As Liv --- in danger of losing her beloved treasure (now worth millions of pounds) to Lefèvre's descendants --- begins to research her painting's provenance, she feels even more of a connection to Sophie. Their circumstances parallel each other to a certain extent, and Liv grows compelled to hold on to the portrait, even if it means destroying her finances and her reputation.
THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND opens with a long section told from Sophie's point of view, followed by a sudden switch to Liv's present-day world. This shift can be disorienting at first, until readers recognize the connection between the two women. After that, the novel unfolds briskly, shifting back and forth between past and present, exploring the mystery of what happened to Sophie (and the painting) while simultaneously building tension around Liv's case for keeping the work of art. Moyes's novel does an admirable job of illustrating the complexities of restitution and of showing the personal stories that might reside behind the headlines.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 23, 2013
The Girl You Left Behind