Yesterday, as an introductory post I presented a list and some brief reviews of my Top 5 all-time favourite books. Since then, I have been suffering from an attack of conscience with regards to my number 5 choice. My Top 5 books have been cemented for some time, the top 3 for over a decade and it would take quite some special book to replace any of them! However, at the end of 2012 I came across one such book. A book which thrilled and engaged me to such an extent that it has taken up a permanent residence in my subconscious mind, honestly I have even dreamed about it! That book is “The Girl You Left Behind” by Jojo Moyes.
Now you may have figured out by this point that not only do I love reading but equally, I am obsessed with history. They are my two most favourite things in the whole world and when they come together it makes me very happy! The Girl You Left Behind is the gripping story of Sophie Lefevre and her family living in German occupied France during World War One. Sophie’s husband Edouard is an artist, and before he left for war he painted a portrait of Sophie and presented it to her as a gift, he called that painting “The Girl I Left Behind”. Sophie is busy running her family inn, Le Coq Rouge when one day enters a German Kommandent who insists that Sophie and her sister begin cooking for him and his men. Sophie, needless to say is horrified but feels as though she has little choice, so she welcomes the German enemy into her home night after night. Before long it becomes clear that not only has the Kommandent become fascinated by the portrait but by the woman in it. Sophie begins to wonder can she use the mans fascination with her to extract information about the whereabouts of her beloved husband? Needless to say, this dangerous game leads to no end of trouble for Sophie and her family.
The action switches midway through the book to present day London. Liv Halston has lost her young husband David, before his death David presented his wife with a gift. A portrait of an unknown woman. The portrait now hangs on Liv’s wall, a reminder of her husband and of their honeymoon. Sadly for Liv, the artists family have been trying to retrieve the portrait and have enlisted the help of an agency which tracks down paintings looted by the Germans during wartime. A grieving Liv is stubbornly determined to hang onto the painting, one may wonder why when she discovers the tragic history of the painting, would she be so desperate to hang onto it but it soon becomes clear that not everything is as it seems and not everybody’s intentions are as honorable as they would have you believe.
I often find “dual time” stories can be confusing and difficult to follow but I believe that Jojo Moyes has really nailed this genre. I will be honest and say that I definitely enjoyed the first part of the book more than the second, so much so that I was literally bereft when I turned over the page and realised that Sophie’s story had come to an end. The author really captures the hardships, the struggles and the desperation felt by Sophie, her sister Helene and the rest of the sad, starving villagers who are buckling under the pressure of German command. The world she has created is so vivid that having been so engrossed in it, I would look up from the book and actually find myself surprised to be sitting in my own living room and not in the bar of Le Coq Rouge. I could almost hear the conversation, smell the food and feel the fear and desperation hanging in the air. I could quite happily have read an entire novel based around Sophie and was so disappointed when her story came to an end that I almost didn’t continue to read, almost! It was only that I was so desperate to find out what became of Sophie and Edouard that I carried on turning those pages and boy am I glad I did. I soon found myself as immersed in Liv’s story as I was in Sophie’s.
Without giving anything of the story away there are many comparisons to be drawn between Sophie and Liv and their stories, not least the loss of the loves of their lives and their strength and resilience when life pushes them to and beyond their limits. Having forced this book on many of my friends, none of whom have regretted it, I have largely found myself alone in my sympathy toward the Kommandent but I was left feeling as though he genuinely loved Sophie. I think his character showed how even the most evil of enemies is just a person underneath, and how even the most gentle of souls can be twisted and destroyed by the evil of war.
This is a story that progresses at a rocketing pace, which tugs at your emotions and will have you hooked from the very first page. It is tense, dramatic, heartbreaking and poignant. I highly recommend this book to anybody, however I would advise that you only pick it up if you know that you have at least one clear day in front of you as you will not be able to put it down until you have finished.