It’s the winter of 1916 and the small French town of St Péronne is occupied by the Germans. With their husbands away at war, sisters Sophie and Hélène are running the family hotel, Le Coq Rouge, the best they can, considering they have no guests, barely any furniture and meagre rations of food and drink. So when the new Kommandant requests that she prepares the evening meals for his men, Sophie has little choice but to say yes. She must be careful, for he seems much more intelligent than his predecessor yet she is bold enough not to hide her prized possession; a painting by her husband, Édouard. It’s a portrait of Sophie from when she was at her happiest and the Kommandant is rather taken with it…if not maybe her as well.
In the present day, the portrait hangs in The Glass House, a modern architectural marvel built by Liv’s late husband. She lives there alone, treasuring the building as a memorial of him and the painting as a memory of their time together. He had always thought the woman in the portrait reminded him of her. But when the painting becomes the subject of a restitution case, Liv is forced to reconsider its heritage. It is rightfully hers, so what if it was stolen nearly 100 years ago? She must make the choice to give the painting up or risk losing everything in a legal fight that she just can’t afford.
From the very first page, I was pulled into Sophie’s world. She is dreaming about food, rich and delicious, yet when she wakes up, it is obvious her situation is quite the opposite. Whilst the story of occupied France is a struggle, there are some humorous and touching moments, such as the buried clock that starts to chime and the pantomime that ensues to try to keep it hidden from the Germans. Sophie’s an incredibly strong character in a hopeless position and she does so much for her family and the people of the town who might not even appreciate it. When she must feed the Germans, she becomes the victim of gossip and shunned by the people she thought were her friends.
Herr Kommandant is a wonderfully written character and illustrates that people were just people on both sides of the war, especially World War I which is looked back on as such a pointless loss of life. He ebbs back and forth from good to bad and back again, I was willing him not to be a villain throughout. He does bad things but also shows kindness and just as much as I wanted to know Sophie’s fate, I wanted to know that deep down there was good in him.
I guess the success of Sophie’s story makes it hard to be wrenched away from her and into the present day. I found the topic of restitution interesting and thought-provoking. Whilst there is the possibility that the painting, known as The Girl You Left Behind, was stolen during the war, it has such sentimental value for Liv whilst Édouard’s descendants merely see it a material object that they feel they have the right to claim. The narrative doesn’t flit about between timelines; there is a good solid chunk at the start to get acquainted with Sophie and her life and her story slowly becomes more and more involved in the present day as Liv uncovers the history of her painting.
The modern day romance seemed to pale in comparison to that of the past, relying an awful lot on coincidence. Enjoyable enough in itself, it’s a little predictable and there’s a chance those picking it up for the more serious elements may find it a little contrived. Initially, Liv’s old college friend, Mo, is the catalyst for her to realise she’s lonely and to go out and eventually meet Paul but after that she was a bit of a spare part who was never really developed. Yet despite this, it’s such an absorbing story, I just flew through the pages and didn’t care.
Of course, readers will want to compare it with the hugely successful Me Before You. Sophie’s story is incredibly moving but you’re much less likely to be reduced to a snotty, sobbing mess by the end. Maybe Moyes decided we needed time to recover from the heartbreak.
I’m afraid this is a bit of an advance review. The Girl You Left Behind is due to be released in paperback on 27th September 2012 by Penguin so make sure you add it to your wishlists so you don’t forget. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.
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