THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND
By Jojo Moyes
Viking, $27.95, 369 pages
Had I known that Jojo Moyes had twice won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, "The Girl You Left Behind" would quickly have become the book I left behind — which would have been a big mistake. What the author has written is not a love story within a historical setting, but an excellent historical novel that is also a moving love story. Excuse me, make that love stories. The book opens in 1916, the midpoint of World War I. The small French town of Peronne — which actually exists, then and now — is occupied by the Germans, whose soldiers have taken everything worth taking, all the valuables and, of course, all the decent food. Even though the townspeople are starving, the Germans want more from them.
The commandant informs Sophie Lefevre that every Monday night she must feed his soldiers in her family's small restaurant, Le Coq Rouge. Sophie is in no position to object or to resist — her beloved husband Edouard, a gifted painter, is, like all the adult males of Peronne, in the French army, fighting the Germans in some unknown part of the country, though odds are he is a prisoner of war. The commandant tells Sophie that he will provide the food, and she and her sister will cook and serve it (and the wine) with appropriate hospitality.
It's the last requirement that earns Sophie the ill will of her own townspeople. She has already proven her mettle by standing up to and staring down the Germans in a magnificent opening scene, which I will not reveal here. Yet some of her neighbors expect ongoing heroism.
That theme, once established, remains a leitmotif throughout the World War I sections of the novel, as does the existence of a beautiful painting of Sophie done by Edouard when they were falling in love. The commandant, no barbarian (at least not culturally) covets the painting, and, eventually, Sophie, in equal measure. However, just when Sophie is taken by the Germans and whisked away in the back of a truck to an unknown fate, and the plot has thickened almost to the point of congealing, the author whisks us away (reluctantly, in the case of this reader, and deposits us in London in 2006).
The painting of the book's title now hangs in the bedroom of Liv Halston, a 33-year-old Londoner who, like Sophie before her, has just lost her husband. The difference is that when we left Sophie, her Edouard was, presumably, still alive, whereas David Halston, Liv's husband, a brilliant young architect with an even more brilliant future, has died, very undramatically, in bed at home at age 36.
As Liv tells someone, late in the book, "'Can you imagine you slept through the person you love most dying next to you? Knowing that there might have been something you could have done to help him? To save him?'"
The torch Liv carries for her husband, who had bought "The Girl You Left Behind" for her on their honeymoon, burns very brightly for very long, and then, when it appears she is about to slip through the safety net of her meager social life, she meets another man and falls for him.
Paul is a professional art-theft investigator, and the company he co-owns specializes in restoring European art stolen by the Germans (in both world wars) to the heirs of their rightful owners. In an intimate scene (that strained my credulity more than a bit) he sees "The Girl" on Liv's bedroom wall and recognizes it as a painting his firm has been hired to find. From that point on, the novel speeds to its resolution, but not before going back in time to pick up, and finish, the Sophie-Edouard story, and then returns to Liv-Paul in modern-day London. It is to author Jojo Moyes' great credit that she accomplishes this difficult task not just with aplomb, but with a compassionate conclusion that is entirely plausible.
This is a novel with many tangents, little streams flowing off the main body of water in the way of so many tributaries. It's a bit like reading a family tree and learning how every one of the main family members fared in life. The secondary characters are all believable and marvelously well-drawn. Here I think immediately of the commandant, but also of Sophie's siblings, her heroic sister, her doubting Thomas of a younger brother and one fellow resident of Peronne in particular.
In the 21st-century London sections, there's Mo, a younger hippie-type who befriends Liv, and vice versa, as well as Paul's partner, a woman with a heart of gold bullion — all in all a superb cast and an excellent story. There's even a fast-moving court scene sequence, which, being set in Great Britain with wigs and all, provides an interesting difference for readers more familiar with American legal thrillers.
By the end, "The Girl You Left Behind" had become not just a picture-perfect historical novel, but also a true mystery-thriller. And I no longer cared how many romance novels Ms. Moyes had written.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.