At first glance, Jojo Moyes’ third novel, “The Girl You Left Behind,” bears a striking resemblance to a popular book for kids: “The Daring Book for Girls” by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz. Their covers are doppelgangers, with retro fonts and metallic splashes, and what’s inside of each has a similar effect of mobilizing the reader to take charge of her own life.
“The Daring Book for Girls” is a call to arms for the independent women of the future, offering instruction on everything from changing a tire to negotiating a salary. It turns out that “The Girl You Left Behind” is also a survival guide, introducing unsinkable women who embody the “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters likely to be hanging in the homes of so many of its future readers.
When we open Moyes’ jaunty cover, we meet Sophie Bessette Lefèvre, who has abandoned a full life in Paris to usher her family’s hotel through the ravages of what will come to be known as World War I. Life in St. Péronne is grim: “the town crunche[s] underfoot with valuables that ha[ve] been hastily buried under gardens and pathways,” and the locals are ravenous while German soldiers whoop it up in the tavern every night. Against all odds, and with the delicious promise of a piglet they’ve smuggled into the basement, the Bessette sisters are determined to keep their parents’ legacy alive at Le Coq Rouge.
The touchstone of Sophie’s hardscrabble days is a painting she displays in the hotel. It’s a portrait of her by her artist husband, Édouard, who is off fighting at the front, and it reminds her of their sexy, smitten courtship, before life became so bleak that she now hoards logs half-burned by the Germans to keep her own hearth warm. The painting reminds Sophie of who she was before: “my hair thick and lustrous around my shoulders, my skin clear and blooming, gazing out with the self-possession of the adored. I had brought it down from its hiding place several weeks before, telling my sister I was damned if the Germans would decide what I should look at in my own home.”
When the cherished piece of art catches the eye of the German Kommandant, who has appropriated the hotel for his soldiers’ revelry, it sets off a domino effect that leads Sophie to an impossible decision. Without even knowing for sure whether Édouard is alive, how far will she go to save him? And should she trust an enemy responsible for the wreckage of everything she holds dear?
Just as we’re on the brink of seeing the consequences of Sophie’s choice, we’re whisked into Moyes’ time machine and transported to London in 2006. The transition is jarring, but we know from Moyes’ previous novel, the bestseller “Me Before You,” that this is an author worth following. And now we’re inside the world of Liv Halston, who is unhappily rattling around inside a minimalist house designed by her late husband, a renowned architect. The only hint of color in this stark landscape of glass? A painting hanging on the bedroom wall called “The Girl You Left Behind,” which the couple bought on a street in Barcelona as a celebration of their engagement. Now that Liv is on her own, the painting is dearer to her than ever before; she considers its subject a kindred spirit.
In a head-spinningly small world turn, Liv visits a gay bar (a place no men will hassle her), where she meets Paul McCafferty, who happens to be straight (his brother is the bartender) and who is also a director of TARP (the Troubled Asset Relief Program), whose mission it is to return artwork stolen during wartime to its rightful owners. Paul’s latest assignment: to track down “a portrait of a woman, missing since 1916, its theft only discovered a decade ago during an audit of the artist’s work by his surviving family.” Several years before, the family spotted the painting in a glossy magazine, hanging boldly on a minimalist wall.
Liv and Paul hit it off. Their romance seems like kismet — both have endured their share of heartbreak — but they find themselves at loggerheads about the future of “The Girl You Left Behind.”
From here on out, Moyes’ story has an overly coordinated vibe, forgivable in the way you don’t judge your favorite aunt’s profusion of Laura Ashley patterns. Even though we’re inspired by her bravery and rooting for her to hang on to the love she deserves, Liv occasionally comes across as peevish and ungenerous in comparison to her soul sister, Sophie, whose fate is the cliffhanger that will propel readers to the end of this book. And we’ll overlook Liv’s roommate, Mo, the literary equivalent of a sitcom sidekick, telling it like it is ad nauseam.
Minor quibbles aside, “The Girl You Left Behind” is, well, impossible to leave behind. Even the most hard-hearted reader will want to know what happens to these women, not just the flesh-and-blood ones but also the bewitching one on the wall. Where will the painting land, and was its subject a casualty of war? In this moving paean to daring, determination and perspicacity, Moyes keeps the reader guessing down to the last hankie.
Egan is a writer in Montclair, N.J.
The Girl You Left Behind
Pamela Dorman Books/Viking: 384 pp., $27.95