Review: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

Posted October 17, 2013 by Heather in Book Reviews / 15 Comments

I received this book for free from the publisher / She Reads in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo MoyesThe Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes
Published by Pamela Dorman Books on August 20, 2013
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 384
Source: the publisher / She Reads

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France, 1916: Artist Édouard Lefèvre leaves his young wife, Sophie, to fight at the front. When their small town falls to the Germans in the midst of World War I, Édouard’s portrait of Sophie draws the eye of the new Kommandant. As the officer’s dangerous obsession deepens, Sophie decides to risk everything–her family, her reputation, and her life–for the chance to see her husband again.

Almost a century later, Sophie’s portrait is given to Liv Halston by her young husband shortly before his sudden death. A chance encounter reveals the painting’s true worth, and a battle begins over its troubled history. Was the painting looted during the war? Who is to pay retribution? And who is the true owner now? As the layers of the painting’s dark past are revealed, Liv’s life is turned upside down all over again. And her belief in what is right is put to the ultimate test…

(from the inside flap)

What would you do if a war were being fought in your country, and your town or city was occupied by enemy forces? Would you cooperate or would you be subversive? What if your survival and the survival of your family depended on which choice you made? Would that make the choice between cooperation and subversion easier? What if the person you loved the most were arrested and taken into custody by the enemy…would you do everything in your power to get them back, even if it meant negotiating with the enemy? If any of those choices meant becoming an outcast and being hated by your neighbors or the rest of your family, would you still make those same choices?

These are the questions I asked myself while reading The Girl You Left Behind, written by Jojo Moyes.

Sophie is in a terrible situation. She is torn between honoring her town’s (and her own) desire for independence from the Germans and doing whatever it takes to keep her family safe and to see her husband again. As much as we’d like to believe that all of our choices in life are black and white, the reality is that there are tons of grey areas. Not everything is cut and dry, and sometimes the consequences of our choices are going to be painful to deal with for one reason or another. This is the idea that I think Moyes deals best with in The Girl You Left Behind.

Sophie’s story is one of heart-wrenching bravery, and it was my favorite part of the book. In fact, I would have loved an entire book about Sophie’s story alone. Sophie is a great character–she’s sensitive and tough; brave and fearful; cunning and a bit naive, maybe. There is nothing unbelievable about her, even though she’s a fictional character. I was drawn into Sophie’s world completely and I’m still thinking about what it would be like to have those same experiences. It’s been very hard to imagine.

In my opinion, once the book moves to Liz’s story, it’s not as interesting and it feels more contrived. Thinner. Moyes is obviously trying to draw parallels between Sophie’s and Liz’s ordeals, but that annoys me a bit. There is just no way to compare the German occupation of France in WWI to a battle to keep a painting. It’s not that Liz’s part of the story is badly written or bad in general, it’s just that when put side-by-side next to Sophie’s part of the story, it falls flat. I didn’t care about Liz and her painting like I cared about Sophie and her fight to stay alive and see her husband. I think Moyes would have been better off writing an entire book about Sophie and her town, rather than try to break it up with Liz and modern times.

I did enjoy The Girl You Left Behind overall. Sophie’s story was beautiful enough to keep me interested and I read the book quickly because I wanted to know what happened to her. Moyes is a good writer and a good storyteller, and I’m still interested in reading the book she published at the end of last year, Me Before You. I’d recommend The Girl You Left Behind to readers interested in WWI-era historical fiction; it’s a very personal story rather than a sweeping view of the events of WWI, and a book that I think many people will enjoy.

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  • I enjoyed this one more than you did, I think. I usually have a problem with books told in the past and present, mostly because the one story (usually the one in the present) is no comparison. This one I enjoyed both stories although I cared less about Lizzie and the painting than I did about her getting over her husband’s death.

    • I did care about Liz getting over David’s death, for sure. I felt horrible about how stuck she seemed to be. But even that, for me, didn’t do as much for me as Sophie’s story.

  • I keep hearing such good things about Moyes’ books! I really need to read her soon. I can totally see how the modern story could fall flat in comparison to the WWI thread, though. Thanks for the review!

  • I haven’t read Moyes’ books, but I do want to read Me Before You. Normally I don’t have a problem with a book told in the past and present, as many historical fiction books I’ve read does that, but I can see how this is a problem for you for this specific book. If the two stories don’t compare, one of them will most definitely fall flat for the reader. Regardless, I think that you’ve written a nice review, and I will definitely consider reading this one, if only for Sophie’s story.

    • I’ve read lots of past/present historical fiction that I loved–both parts being equally great.

      I’m always nervous when I enjoy a book overall, but get annoyed with a piece of it. I don’t want a review like this to turn people away from reading the book, but I don’t want to leave out what annoyed me. I’m glad you’ll still consider this one. 🙂

  • Great review, as usual. 🙂

  • I felt the exact same way- it started off fine, but once the narrative shifted I was increasingly disappointed. I thought Me Before You was much better than this one.

    • I’m looking forward to reading it.

  • I always, always, ALWAYS enjoy the historical side of a dual narrative story. And there are so many of those lately, right? Anyway, I did like this one. In ways I liked it better than Me Before You. Great review Heather 😀

  • I liked Sophie’s story better too. I thought she was by far the more appealing character and mostly couldn’t put the book down during the parts about Liv because I was waiting to hear what she learned about Sophie 🙂

    • Heather

      Yep. Same here.

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