Wednesday, June 11, 2014

JoJo Moyes Does it Again

The Girl You Left Behind

Just as she did last year with "Me Before You," JoJo Moyes has made this jaded reader cry with her unabashedly romantic new novel "The Girl You Left Behind." A mash-up of historical/contemporary, this book is a perfect blend that will appeal to readers in both genre. And lest you think it's just frilly "women's fiction," (a term I hate), let me disabuse you of that notion right now.

Moyes begins the story of Sophie, the actual girl left behind, in 1916, in a small town in northern France occupied by German forces. Because we Americans have never had to deal with occupying forces in our homeland, I think it can be difficult to imagine what goes on during wartime in villages like St. Peronne. The Germans have requisitioned homes, furniture, bedding, food, silverware, dishes, all the belongings of the town's citizens, now a desperate, starving group of people who will, as humans will, turn on their own for a scrap of bread.

It's not surprising then, when the local Kommandant takes over Le Coq Rouge, the local inn owned by Sophie and her sister Helene, that the townspeople begin to look at the Bessette sisters with distrust. They may be working eighteen hour days cooking and feeding the German troops, under protest, but hey, aren't they beginning to gain a little weight? Does it look like their children have a small bloom of health back on their cheeks? And, oh, isn't the Kommandant paying a bit too much attention to Sophie, whose husband, the artist Edouard Lefevre, is away at the front? And why is the Kommandant so enthralled by Edouard's painting of Sophie, the one he's called The Girl He Left Behind?

Fast forward to contemporary London where Liv Halston, still grieving and aimless four years after the sudden death of her husband, the architect, David Halston, lies in bed half the day staring at the painting that David bought for her in Barcelona the day before he died. The red-haired woman in the painting mocks Liv. She is a woman well sated, exuding satisfaction and love from every pore. Liv wonders if she'll ever feel that way again. Like the Kommandant before her, Liv is enthralled by The Girl He Left Behind.

This painting and the tale of its provenance is a slender thread that connects Sophie to Liv and is at the crux of this engaging book. I won't say any more about the plot because I go crazy when the reviewers in the New York Times  seem to go on and on, revealing every little plot twist, often even the ending. What's up with that?

I will say that JoJo Moyes creates quirky, gutsy, sympathetic characters whose fate compels you to read on. She perfects the modern single girl trope, while completely altering her writing style to reflect the early twentieth century. There are themes galore for book groups to ponder but Moyes refrains from hitting readers over the head with them.

There's no doubt that people suffering through wartime deprivations will be faced with horrific moral ambiguities. Remember another Sophie's choice? What would you be willing to do to save a husband, a child, a parent, from torture or starvation? Can we ever really know, until faced with the worst that one human being can visit upon another? And then there's greed. How much is enough? And truth? How far are you willing to dig to bring an injustice to light? JoJo Moyes will pose these questions and more in her deeply satisfying third novel.

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