The Girl You Left Behind actually features two abandoned girls: Sophie Lefèvre, whose husband left her to fight in World War I, and Liv Halston’s, whose husband died after 4 years of marriage sometime in present day. While I personally found Sophie’s tale most engrossing (after all, she was the subject of Monsieur Lefèvre’s painting, The Girl You Left Behind), both women find themselves in some kind of battle, tied together by this incredible portrait.
“Most days now his loss is a part of her, an awkward weight she carries around, invisible to everyone else, subtly altering the way she moves through the day.”
So, our two ladies exist about 100 years apart. In 1916, Sophie Lefèvre and her sister and their family have been scratching out an existence in the French countryside while their husbands fight in the war and the Germans steal everything in their town. Sophie reluctantly makes “friends” with the local Kommandant, who demands that she and her sister open their inn to his men. She tries to persuade him to get her information about her husband by offering him the portrait (The Girl You Left Behind) that her husband painted years ago, and with which the Kommandant seems fascinated. Of course, any type of even minor friendliness towards the Germans makes Sophie’s neighbors, and even family, wildly suspicious. About a century later, Liv Halston owns that portrait, given to her by her late husband as a wedding gift. A new man enters her life, and has his own fascination with the painting — and its true owners.
The first hundred pages or so of the novel focus entirely on Sophie Lefèvre, whose incredibly affecting story will totally make you cry (just me?). The things her family suffered through — the hunger, the cold, the fear — tore me apart, especially knowing that these things actually happened, and on an incredible scale. So when we get to Liv, I almost felt relieved that she “only” had her husband’s death to deal with. Trauma all around. The fight over the portrait — who it actually belongs to, who should have it in their possession — reflects similar fights that have been happenings for decades. Moyes makes it a little easier on us — the family contesting ownership only wants it for the money, not for sentimental reasons — but it’s still hard to know who you really ought to root for. But it’s a good book — very well-written, with fantastically strong women at the forefront.