Author: Jojo Moyes
Edition: Softcover, Penguin Books, 2012
You can purchase The Girl You Left Behind online at Hugo Bookstores.
Book discussions can head in many directions based upon this novel. Open up a discussion on current events focused on restoring art to its rightful owners. Or take the discussion to a more personal level focusing on what it feels like to be left behind or exposed— both significant themes in The Girl You Left Behind.
While sections of the book, such as extensive dialogue in journal entries or a child from WW I clearly remembering and speaking in a court of law in the present, are overly contrived, the underlying characters and themes are sympathetically presented. The novel is captivating and a fairly quick read.
You can also read both this novel and Me Before You, which Moyes wrote more recently, and compare the writing styles and plot devices of each.
Many good articles can be found on the challenge of returning looted art to rightful owners following wartime atrocities.
A 2014 article in the New York Times presents some of the challenges in finding rightful owners of a painting.
A second 2014 New York Times article presents some of the debate over restitution when looted art was later purchased in good faith.
The Atlantic published an article following one of the largest discoveries of artwork in Germany.
If you want to go into depth on looted artwork, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers a bibliography of resources in the museum’s collection.
Characters in France in 1916
Sophie Lefèvre: Owner, along with her sister, of Le Coq Rouge, an inn in St Pérronne, a French town occupied by Germans.
Édouard: Sophie’s artist husband fighting on the front
Hélène: Sophie’s older sister
Aurélien: Sophie’s teenage brother
Kommandant: Commander of the German soldiers billeted in St. Pérronne.
Liliane Béthune: Spy for the French resistance branded as a collaborator by the townspeople.
Edith: Liliane’s daughter
Mimi: Helene’s daughter
Jean: Helene’s baby
Characters in the present
Liv Halston: widow and current owner of the painting The Girl You Left Behind
David Halston: Liv’s husband who died unexpectedly four years ago.
Mo: Liv’s classmate from an art class and temporary housemate
Paul McCafferty: Owner of a business that works to return looted art works to rightful owners
Greg McCafferty: Paul’s brother and bar owner
Janey: Paul’s business partner at Trace and Return Partnership
Sven: David’s prior business partner and current firm owner
Marianne Johnson: woman who sold Liz and David the painting as she was cleaning out her recently deceased mother’s home
Fran: homeless woman who lives by Liv’s building
Discussion Topics and Discussion Questions
Some of the most prominent themes in The Girl You Left Behind are being left behind, feeling exposed, the other side of the story and the bare essence of what makes life worth living. Any of these can be used as book club discussion questions to get your conversation started.
Point of View
Sophie’s story is told in the first person while Liv’s story is told in the third person. Often a first person narrative is more intimate and relies exclusively on the narrator’s perspective. How does seeing the world exclusively through Sophie’s eyes affect your empathy with Sophie? Third person allows the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters to be expressed. Does hearing the current story told through both Liv’s and Paul’s perspective affect where your allegiance lies or allow you to understand a broader spectrum of the story than you might if you only heard the story from one or the other?
On Being Left Behind
The title of the book not only refers to the painting, but also to the two central and multiple supporting characters in the book. Sophie was the girl Édouard left behind when he went to the front. Liv was the girl David left behind when he died. Liv acknowledges that feeling directly, “She no longer sees the friends she ahd back then the Cherry’s, the Jasmines. The women who would remember the girl she had been.” page 138
Liv’s association to the painting is both as the girl who David left behind as well as a touchstone to that past. “It is time to live in the present. She is more than the girl David left behind.” page 187.
In what ways does the fullness of the girl in the painting contrast with the woman that each character becomes when she is left behind? Where in the novel do you see that contrast being drawn most directly? How does being left behind affect who each of Sophie and Liv become? What or who helps each character continue on?
Have you ever been the left behind? Was the person you were stronger or weaker than who you became? Who or what helped you continue on?
The Glass House is symbolic of many aspects of Liv and her situation. What are some of the symbols you see in the Glass House?
Living in the Glass House not only exposes the occupants to others, but makes them feel exposed. Sophie is exposed to the townspeople of St. Péronne as she is taken away when Aurélien shouts out, “I know what you did! I know why you did with that German!” page 120. Similarly Liv feels the eyes, anger and physical ferocity of the crowd upon her as she attempts to get into the courthouse page 307.
When has your life seem exposed? What are the most difficult elements of feeling or being exposed to those who don’t know you?
Other Side of the Story
Look at some of the unshared stories of which the reader is aware, but not the other characters in the novel.
In addition to the two main characters, Sophie and Liv, both of whom are perceived by their contemporaries very differently from the narrative the reader sees, many supporting characters have a hidden side. Consider Liliane, a member of the French resistance, who is viewed by the townspeople as a collaborator and consequently treated cruelly.
When have you seen only one side of a story only to find out later the other side and regret a judgment or perception? When you you been the victim of someone only knowing one side of a story and opposing you? What efforts have you gone to to get your side of the story known or ferret out someone else’s full story?
Bare Essence of Life
Fran lives by Liv’s building with “an endless collection” of plastic bags “which she endlessly sorts and rearranges.” page 144.
How does the inclusion of Fran as a homeless woman living by Liz’s building emphasize or deemphasize the feeling of exposure? How does Liv’s relationship with Fran help Liv re-engage with life?
Returning Stolen Art
Look into an actual case of art stolen and returned. Can you empathize with both the descendants of the original owner and the current owner?
With all of the cases of stolen art from WW II why do you think Moyes chose to based her novel on the events of WW I? Was the longer elapsed time critical to the story line or is it possible the author was trying to separate her novel from WW II recoveries? in an interview Moyes says that she “realized I had heard so little about this part of history [the First World War],” making it sound as she was simply interested in researching the First World War. How do you think having the novel set during WW II would have altered the investigation, the conflict or the parallels between Liv and Sophie?
How common do you think it’s the case that a current art owner is unaware of the provenance of his or her art? Is the core of the novel plausible? How likely is it that a modern day individual came by a valuable and possibly looted painting innocently?
Whom do you think holds a stronger moral claim on a piece of stolen art— the descendants of the original owner from whom it was stolen to a current owner who purchased the artwork legitimately?