France, 1916. Sophie Lefevre must keep her family safe whilst her adored husband Edouard fights at the front. When she is ordered to serve the German officers who descend on her hotel each evening, her home becomes riven by fierce tensions. And from the moment the new Kommandant sets eyes on Sophie’s portrait – painted by Edouard – a dangerous obsession is born, which will lead Sophie to make a dark and terrible decision.
Almost a century later, and Sophie’s portrait hangs in the home of Liv Halston, a wedding gift from her young husband before he died. A chance encounter reveals the painting’s true worth, and its troubled history. A history that is about to resurface and turn Liv’s life upside down all over again . . .
In The Girl You Left Behind two young women, separated by a century, are united in their determination to fight for what they love most – whatever the cost.
I’m a sucker for art books. I loved The Woman in Gold (the story about Klimt’s Adele Bauer) and Big Eyes (about Margaret Keane) and when I realised that this story will also be centered around the ownership debate of a WW I painting alledgedly stolen by the Germans (there were no Nazis in WW I) which reappeared in a rich architect’s house 100 years on – I was sold.
Who has right of ownership? Original family who lost the painting during the war? Or the lonely widow who purchased the painting while honeymooning in Spain at least a decade ago from a street vendor with no trail of paperwork to show where it was from? What do you do if you find yourself owing a multi-million painting from an artist who did very little work and is highly sought-after by the Russians who love understudies of Matisse.
It would be a clear-cut approach and as the author states – most of the stories written so far have been from the point of view of the claimants – desiring to be re-united with a piece of their history and family – not from the POV of the defendant’s who wishes to keep a piece of their own property, rightfully acquired through legal means and which holds a sentimental value.
Based on the Haga Convention – any goods stolen must be given back to their original owners. This is where this most expensive court case comes along. What if it wasn’t stolen? Can you prove rightful ownership through the decades when all the people involved are either dead or missing?
JoJo Moyes does a really good thing here. She splits the book into different sections – three if I’m not mistaken – and jumps through them so we can see who the woman in the painting was, how the painting got to be, how it disappeared and the story of the today’s owner and her search for meaning after her husband’s tragic death. I mean, all the stories were tragic but there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.
I loved Sophie’s early life in 1914, her life with Eduardo – the penniless painter from Paris, her struggling in 1917 to keep the pub open during German occupation, her desperation as she was no longer hearing good news about her husband in the war and today’s Lis – lonely in a big and empty house, struggling to make ends meet, having this painting connect her.
I also loved the badly timed rom-com – she falls in love with the only guy out there to take her painting away. Paul is working for the restitution intermediary company – one of many such places who help the relatives of the people who died in war recover their fortunes. And charge up to 15% of the sale value for their share. I mean there is a lot of work. Art galleries have their own private investigators who dig through paperwork – what was moved where during the war. Apparently Germans during the second world war were great at bureaucracy and had a paper trail for every work of art “saved” from the occupied lands and sent to Mother Deutschland. WW I Germany was not so great at keeping records and a lot of pieces disappeared forever.
The only way the Lefevres got lucky was due to an Architectural Digest article on the house which showed the painting in the background of the bedroom shot. I mean – what are the odds?
“Sometimes life is a series of obstacles, a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, she realizes suddenly, it is simply a matter of blind faith.”
What I didn’t love so much was the over-sentimental approach Lis had. Her husband died, yes, and it traumatised her to a point where she became a recluse who only liked to run and work. It’s explained well towards the end of the book – the why’s of the longing to keep the painting. But still, I feel like there was a lot of pulling on people’s heartstrings.
“Four years ago David and I went to bed like it was any other night, brushing our teeth reading our books, chatting about a restaurant we were going to the next day…and when I woke up the next morning he was there beside me, cold. Blue. I didn’t…I didn’t feel him go. I didn’t even get to say…”
There is a short silence.
“Can you imagine knowing 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 ? Not knowing if he was looking at you, silently begging you to…”
The words fail, her breath catches, a familiar tide threatens to wash over her He reaches out his hands slowly, enfolds hers within them until she can speak again.
“I thought the world had actually ended. I thought nothing good could ever happen again. I thought any thing might happen if I wasn’t vigilant. I didn’t eat. I didn’t go out. I didn’t want to see anyone. But I survived, Paul. Much to my own surprise, I got through it. And life…well, life gradually became liveable again.”
She leans closer to him.
“So this…the painting, the house…It hit me when I heard what happened to Sophie. It’s just stuff. They could take all of it, frankly. the only thing that matters is people.”
She looks down at his hands, and her voice cracks.
“All that really matters is who you love.”
Other than that, the book for me was a hit. And after so many recent misses, I loved it. Well fleshed-out characters, good descriptions of life during occupation and the permanent hunger and the gossiping neighbours in a small village – and also the modern-day expensive court battles where the only people really winning are the lawyers.