“I think we can break the rules for something we love” (p. 206).
Édouard Lefèvre is already a celebrated painter in the Matisse school when he asks Sophie to model for him. She hesitates, but feels flattered that a man with “the power to make one of Paris’s brightest stars feel dull and invisible” (p. 46) is interested in a humble shopgirl. As he paints her portrait, Édouard and Sophie fall deeply in love. All too soon, war erupts.
When Édouard joins the French army at the start of World War I, Sophie finds herself left behind, waiting in St. Péronne, a small French village, for her husband’s return. She shares her fear for Édouard’s safety with her sister, Hélène, who has also been left husbandless by the war. Together, the two women run their family’s small hotel and care for their younger brother, Aurélien, and Hélène’s two children. They do their best to keep Le Coq Rouge open as a place for neighbors to gather.
Once the Germans take over St. Péronne, life becomes even grimmer. Food supplies dwindle, and German soldiers supplement their needs by requisitioning French livestock and household goods. One village woman is rumored to be a collaborator and other villagers are brutally beaten seemingly for no reason at all. Then, a new and more formidable Kommandant arrives. Much to Sophie’s surprise, the German officer is knowledgeable about art and admires both the painting of Édouard’s hanging in Le Coq Rouge—and its subject, Sophie herself. As the Kommandant spends more time at the hotel, a dangerous obsession grows, drawing Sophie into a bargain for her husband’s life that could have utterly devastating consequences for her and the family and friends she has fought so hard to protect.
More than a century later, Sophie’s portrait, The Girl You Left Behind, hangs in the London home of another young woman. Widowed at twenty-eight, Liv Halston still lives in the spectacular glass house she used to share with her husband, David. A celebrated architect, David designed several famous buildings, including their home, which now she can barely afford.
David’s sudden death left Liv financially as well as emotionally devastated. “His loss is a part of her, an awkward weight she carries around, invisible to everyone else” (p. 151). But when Liv meets Paul McCafferty during a chance encounter, she starts to feel as though life might have something in store for her yet. Paul’s work lies in the restitution of lost art and the spoils of war—and in a cruel twist, his next case is the portrait of Sophie that Liv loves most in all the world.
In recent years—unbeknown to Liv—interest in Édouard Lefèvre had skyrocketed and the painting that David bought Liv on their honeymoon could easily be worth two or three million pounds. Although Sophie’s portrait is unsigned, Édouard’s family has a strong case put together by none other than Paul McCafferty and the art recovery organization he works for, TARP (Trace and Return Partnership). When Liv begins looking into the dark history behind the painting and Sophie’s own story, she finds it is much more complicated, though, than anyone could have ever known.
The attraction between Paul and Liv is instant and powerful, but the battle over who is the true owner of the portrait forces each to decide what really matters—and how much they are willing to risk to save it.
Jojo Moyes is a journalist and the author of several books, including the New York Times bestseller Me Before You and The Last Letter from Your Lover. She lives with her husband and children in Essex, England.
Is The Girl You Left Behind inspired by an actual case? What influenced your decision to set the historical part of the novel during World War I rather than World War II?
Yes, I read an article about a young woman war reporter in the Second World War who was left in charge of one of Hitler’s stores of stolen art and given a valuable painting as a “thank-you,” and it got me thinking about how morality can become almost relative in times of war, even for good people. And then I saw something about occupied France in the First World War and realized I had heard so little about this part of history, and the two things slowly started to conflate in my mind.
What kind of research did you do for The Girl You Left Behind? Is there a real artist whose work you imagined as Édouard Lefèvre’s paintings?
Not one artist in particular. I went round the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, looking at the Impressionists on the upper floors, and I imagined Lefèvre as a mixture of many of the artists I saw.
You are clearly not an author who shies away from controversial subject matter. Your last novel, Me Before You, is—in part—the story of a paraplegic man who cannot bear to live his life wheelchair-bound any longer. In The Girl You Left Behind, you use a possibly stolen piece of art as a springboard for both romance and a highly publicized claim for restitution. What draws you to these types of stories?
I love stories where the answers are not black or white; stories that make you think: what would I do in that position? And it’s often news stories that inspire me by prompting this exact question. I like to write about issues that have a bit of substance to them. Yes, my books have love stories, but I hope there’s a fair bit of grit in the oyster, too.
You exhibit tremendous empathy for Sophie and Liv, both of whom are unfairly condemned by public opinion. Have you ever found yourself—or someone you admire—in a similar situation?
No, thank goodness. But the tide of public opinion turning against you, especially in an age of social media, must be a truly terrifying thing, and it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to guess how it would feel to be on the wrong side of it.
As you illustrate in the novel, public sentiment generally sides with the claimant rather than the current owner in most art restitution cases. As a journalist, do you feel that the press takes advantage of its power to shape public opinion?
I think there is—rightly—a huge groundswell of sympathy for those who lost precious possessions in wartime. But the farther away from the original loss we get, the less clear it can become, especially if people have bought the item in good faith. When I researched the issue, I read academic papers on the legal costs of reclamation and the length of cases, and it was clear that this has become something of an industry in itself—not always a good thing.
Do you find it easier to write historical fiction or stories set in the present day? Which do you prefer to read?
I read across all genres. I often think I prefer modern-day fiction, but two of the best books I’ve read recently—Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber—are set several centuries ago.
You wrote an article for a British newspaper titled “Writing a Sex Scene Is an Impossible Task.” What have you learned about writing sex scenes?
I’m definitely getting a bit braver about writing sex scenes, but they’re so full of pitfalls that it’s often easier not to. The biggest problem is using terminology that doesn’t sound like either porn or a biology textbook. You don’t want anything that’s going to pull the reader out of the narrative, no matter how briefly.
What is the most memorable comment you’ve ever received from a fan?
Oh, since Me Before You there have been so many—there was a point where I couldn’t keep up with my e-mails. But the one that moved me most was from a woman whose sister had committed suicide at Dignitas the previous year and who said that had she known what the book was about she wouldn’t have picked it up. But having read it, she felt she had a better insight into her sister’s thought processes, and that it had given her closure. That’s an amazing thing to be told.
Your love stories are famously complicated, something many readers can relate to. How do you construct the arc of a romantic relationship?
Oh, that’s a “how long is a piece of string” question. It really depends on the characters and the plot. But the thing I have come to see as true for every book over the years is that it is okay to make characters complex and flawed and not always able to do the right thing—and that keeping them apart is as important as getting them together.
What are you working on now?
Several things—as seems to be the case these days. I’m writing the screenplay for the film version of Me Before You, and I’m doing the final edits for my next book, which will be out in the United States in summer 2014. It’s a book about five very different characters—a single mother, a disgraced dotcom tycoon, a math prodigy child, a bullied teenager, and a dog called Norman—who end up on a road trip together.