It isn’t quite often that I find a book which once I’ve finished, I go right back to the start and devour page after page all over again, and over the Christmas Holidays, I did exactly that! ‘The Girl You Left Behind’ made me dive right back into this heartbreaking yet heartwarming tale. Never have I flipped the pages so fast as to find out the fates of both Sophie LeFever and Olivia Halston. I found this piece of writing by Moyes to be a stunning and picturesque historical love story, inspiring readers of our generation.
Being a fan of historical novels, especially ones with war settings, I was pleased to discover that ‘The Girl You Left Behind’ did not disappoint on any occasion. The protagonist’s struggles are set in two different time frames, making this a dual-frame narrative. St. Peronne, an occupied French village in the First World War is where the first part of the novel and Sophie LeFever’s tale begins. With her husband and brother-in-law fighting at the front, and not being heard from for months, Sophie lives with her brother Aurelien, her sister Helen and her children in La Coq. What was once a grand hotel, has now been stripped bare of it’s glory by the new German occupants. Sophie mentions with melancholy how there is little left of the grand rooms where both her and Helen had once spent their wedding nights. With rations running low, as was morale, the townspeople turn to the hotel’s rather dilapidated bar, more for comfort and solace in such hard times rather than a gin and tonic.
St. Peronne, painted in its grey and sombre atmosphere, is where the author, Jojo Moyes, demonstrates how even the most loyal of people turn on one another as new suspicions arise like new leaves on trees in spring time. The harsh impact of town gossip and rumours hit Sophie like a train wreck, as the German Kommandant’s obsession with her and Edouard’s painting grows. Sophie, already a common punching bag for the town’s gossip, makes one last desperate, yet extremely dangerous, gamble to find Edouard. At this crucial stage, we see Sophie being carted away into the wilderness as Helen stands with the children, fear for her sister visibly creeping onto her pale face. Sophie leaves behind her legacy and her beautiful painting hanging on the wall of the Hotel, which quickly became subdued in a rather sober atmosphere.
Fast forward to nearly a century later, we now meet a young widow, Olivia Halston, who is desperately trying to hold onto the remnants of David’s life, despite continuous efforts from her family and friends to help her move on. One of these remnants includes Sophie’s painting which now hangs on the walls of Olivia’s house, which is David’s last legacy. When it seems that she is spiralling into depression and headed towards a dead end, she meets Paul McCafferty, a charming ex-cop with whom it seems she finally has chance of a romantic relationship.
However, it seems there’s more than what meets the eye with our new romantic hero. Soon Olivia finds out that Paul works for a company who specialise in restoring valuable European art, stolen by the Germans in the First and the Second World War, to their original and rightful heirs. At a heartbreakingly intimate scene in the book, Paul sees the painting, which the book is named after, hanging on Olivia’s bedroom wall. Desperately trying to prove that the painting wasn’t stolen and Sophie’s innocence, we see Olivia in a race against time to find the truth about what really happened in St. Perrone all this years ago. Olivia holds onto the belief that Sophie desperately clung on to all hope and faith that she would be delivered back to her Edouard. At this crucial stage both the reader and Olivia fight to grasp onto the hope that all is not yet lost.
This is where I was on the edge on my seat, flipping page after page which was infused with suspense and thrill as we find out what really happened to Sophie’s painting so many years ago. Moyes writing style is incredibly engaging and fast paced with regards to both narratives, riveting me as a reader, the novel glued onto my hands. She makes the reader feel a part of the story, like we belong, as we both suffer and rejoice with our heroines in the climaxing part of the novel. I often find myself emotionally spent after finishing a book where I am so emotionally invested in the characters only to find that they don’t have a happy ending. I believe that books should have happy endings since life, sometimes, does not. I was extremely pleased to discover the sense of peace and mellowness that blanketed my sub-conscience, as the novel neared its end.
Intensely heartbreaking and epically moving, this novel proved to be an emotional roller coaster for me as a reader. It has convinced me that Jojo Moyes has yet again crafted a brilliant piece of fictional literature, one that I want to read more of. By the end of the book, not only had ‘The Girl You Left Behind’ become a picturesque historical love story but also a novel infused with excellent syntax and mystery, making it a thoroughly enjoyable and a recommended read!