There a was story in the news recently about the claim by two Polish men that they know the location of a mysterious Nazi Ghost train which disappeared at the end of the second world war. The train which is supposedly laden with gold, gems, art work and weapons was hidden by a special German unit fleeing the advancing Russian forces at the end of the war, when it was parked in a long forgotten tunnel in Poland and blocked up. Add to that the discovery, 2 years ago, of a horde of stolen art in the walls of a Munich apartment and the success of the movie The Monuments Men last year, you’d wonder why very little is heard about art being stolen during world war one. Quite simply the Treaty of Versailles catered for repatriation of stolen art, were as this wasn’t the case after WWII. One of the pieces found in the flat in Munich was “Woman in a Chair” by the French artist Henri Matisse, this could have been the inspiration for this month book, “The Girl You Left Behind” by JoJo Moyes (www.jojomoyes.com).
The book starts in France midway through First World War. Sophie Leferve is running her family’s hotel the Le Coq Rouge in the northern French town of St. Perrone not far from where the battle of the Somme is raging. The town is under the control of the German army and it’s brutal rules and regulations. Shortly after arriving in the town the local German Commandant orders the hotel to be used as a mess for
his officers and one night after eating the commandant discovers a portrait of Sophie painted by her husband Edouard, a well known artist,who is away fighting the Germans on the front. The commandant immediately falls for the painting. A couple of weeks later after hearing Edouard has been captured and held prisoner Sophie secretly approaches the commandant and attempts to trade the portrait for her husband’s safe return. But in an apparent misunderstanding she is arrested and taken away to an unknown fate.
Jump forward ninety years to London 2006 and Liv Halston a young widow is struggling to stay on top of her mounting debts and living in a large state of the art waterfront house designed by her late husband. In the master bedroom hangs the portrait of Sophie Leferve titled “The Girl you Left Behind”. While out on drinking session on her husbands anniversary, her bag is stolen. That’s when she meets Paul McCafferty an ex- new york cop and now a stolen art specialist, they fall for each other then one night she brings Paul back to her place and he discovers the painting in the bedroom. Paul’s company has been hired by the Leferve family to find the painting that went missing during the war. The star crossed lovers thus find themselves on opposing sides of a bitter custody battle for the painting. Can Liv retain ownership or will “The Girl You Left behind” make it back to France? What is the real story about how the painting ended up on the other side of the English channel and what ever became of Sophie? Will Liv and Paul’s relationship survive the court case?
My initial thoughts on the book were that it was a bit disjointed. The first part is a gripping story about a family surviving under the suffocating tyranny of German occupied France. This pulls you in from page one and then unceremoniously dumps you into the present day without so much as Delorian and a flux capacitor. For the first couple of pages after this transition I was lost, wondering had there been a printing error. But alas no, it was planned. What Moyes has tried to do is marry together an eerily accurate war story with a piece of “Chick-Lit” and some day time TV court room drama thrown into the mix for good measure. But this she does with masterful aplomb, that shows what a skilled seasoned writer can do with the literary ingredients of Ready Steady Cook.
The second part of the story does come across rather ‘Rom Comie’, owing primarily to romance being Moyes’s preferred genre. If it were made into a movie it would have Hugh Grant’s and Richard Curtis names all over it but after the cold hard realities of occupied life, this is a warm and humorous tale, which does get interesting when the tug of war court room drama kicks in. Then you start rooting for Liv to win, but also secretly for her romance with Paul to survive. You have to feel sorry for Liv, she’s a real down on her luck young widow struggling to get over the loss of her husband. Despite starting out as a difficult transition , this quickly re covers to deliver a charming well blended tale stretching across a generation and two wars.
This is the first book of Moyes’ that I’ve read, although I’ve been aware of her for a while, mainly because being an Everton supporter, I noticed she shares her surname with one of our great managers. This is the ninth book of thirteen, the thirteenth “After You” is due to be published at the end of September 2015. The former journalist and Arts correspondent started writing in 2002 with her first novel Sheltering Rain, the others include Foreign Fruit (Windfallen – U.S.) 2003, Ship of Brides 2005 and Me Before You 2012 of which her thirteenth book is a sequel. Her big claim to fame is that she is one of a small group of authors who have won the coveted Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Romantic Novel of The Year Award twice.
So, if like me, the unrelenting news of about the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe is getting you down. Pop into your local book store or download a copy of this book and lose yourself in a unique blend of genres from an acclaimed British writer.