The Girl You Left Behind, By Jojo Moyes

Drama in two parts: love and betrayal

Daneet Steffens
Saturday 22 September 2012 19:02
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In part one of Jojo Moyes's latest novel, Sophie Lefèvre and her family are running a small-town hotel, Le Coq Rouge. But, the year is 1916 and this is German-occupied France, where day-to-day life for the inhabitants of St Péronne vacillates wildly between brutality, fragility and desperation.

Moyes adroitly captures the details of life under occupation: the furtive looks and shared shame; the tragedy of neighbours and family members turning on each other; the small defiances, including the squirrelling away of family treasures. While an incident with a suckling pig in disguise provides tension and humour, a grandfather clock hidden beneath a vegetable patch ("the town crunched underfoot with valuables that had been hastily buried under gardens and pathways") poignantly brings home people's desperation to retain heirlooms during war. "This was the story of our lives: minor insurrections, tiny victories, a brief chance to ridicule our oppressors, little floating vessels of hope amid a great sea of uncertainty, deprivation and fear."

When a German Kommandant falls under the spell of a painting in the hotel (a portrait of Sophie created by her husband), the stage is set for painful complications.

Part two opens in London, 90 years later, where Liv Halston and Paul McCafferty meet over a stolen handbag. Liv is a 30-year-old copywriter and widow, barely tolerating restaurant dinner parties of Smug Marrieds and Toxic Divorcés – she hides in the toilets playing Scrabble on her phone to escape a particularly offensive set-up – and fending off final reminder notices and mortgage bills. Paul, a former NYPD cop, who now recovers lost and stolen art, comes face-to-face with a painting of professional interest at a particularly salient moment during his courtship of Liv. As Moyes casts her own brand of storytelling magic, the so far, so rom-com tale shifts smoothly into courtroom drama.

Contributing to the entertaining glue is Mo, a goth waitress with a resolute sense of survival. She's got a no-nonsense approach and an astute philosophical apprehension that shines through when least expected, observing that, sometimes, "the history of a painting is not just about a painting. It's also about the history of a family, with all its secrets and transgressions".

Even as Moyes tackles the inflammatory issues around art stolen during wartime, she never loses sight of the driving engine of her narrative – that all-too-human truths can often be obscured by cruel and ignorant rumours. In a tale that asks: "Is it still a betrayal if you're doing it for the right reasons?" this pleasurably assured writer skilfully balances the quotidian and the comic with the broad and universal, leaving us with the tantalising possibility of a potential caper to come.

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