Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Girl You Left Behind Discussion Guide

Book: The Girl You Left Behind
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.

Internet Resources

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.

Major Characters

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?

Personal Exposure

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?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Books Where Myth and Reality Blur

The fall solstice occurs tomorrow and for one instant our planet will incline neither towards nor away from the sun, a passing moment of time and space balance for the resents of earth.  Here are three novels that tip that balance, offering stories that slide gently through you hands, often slipping back and forth in time and between myth and reality.  

The Tiger’s Wife

I never expected that a book so focused on death could be so enjoyable to read. Death in the present, death in the near past, death in the distant past, the death of reality and the myth that grows up around death. One of its pleasures, which also makes it an excellent choice for book groups, is the gaps the author intentionally leaves. Why did a character act as he did? What occurred and what was added in the retelling of a story? What is the truth behind the myth? 

Yet there is far more substance than gap. Much is revealed through myth-telling and memory and backstory-- marvelous backstories of ancillary characters. Stories that stand on their own as compelling and captivating as the novel as a whole, which is one aspect of the book that can make it difficult to read chunks at a time. With so many backstories, it is easy to lose track of the two primary tales being told and difficult to remember which characters are in which timeframe. However, knowing the characters is very important to enjoying the fullness of the story. And precisely because of the backstories, I was able to vividly picture and consequently remember each of the characters and how they related to the thread woven through the entire novel.

In addition, the author's omission of a precise city name, allows the novel to be more timeless and less tied to a specific geography. The myths and conflicts that occur in this novel could easily have occurred in another time or place. Much is sadly relevant to conflicts throughout human history.
I said: "I'm sorry," and regretted it immediately, because it just fell out of my mouth and continued to fall, and did nothing. 
"When men die, they die in fear," he said. "They take everything they need from you, and as a doctor it is your job to give it, to comfort them, to hold their hand. But children die how they have been living-- in hope. They don't know what's happening, so they expect nothing, they don't ask you to hold their hand-- but you end up needing them to hold yours."

An Invisible Sign of My Own

Readers need to be comfortable on the periphery of the centricity of reality to enjoy this book. For instance, what math teacher would be allowed to hang a sharpened ax on her wall to represent the number 7? 

But if you're there, tiptoeing along the edges, knocking on wood through life, craving order in life and death, not wanting to have the future come crashing down because you relied on a certain outcome, then you may find a deep connection with An Invisible Sign of My Own

Or if you can relate to the wonderful peculiarities and honesty of children in an elementary classroom and a teacher who keeps a tenuous hold on their interest, then you may laugh out loud while reading this book. 

Or if you have a deep relationship with someone and knock on wood that your lives will remain intertwined through all time, then you may find a lump in your throat as you close the book.

But if you need straight up or down, reality or fantasy, all black and white, then let your gaze drift past this binding and reach for words that won't dance before your eyes, just out of reach, not quite able to be pinned down.

The Emperor of Paris

A story can begin with a word or by stepping onto a book or with the glimpse of an object or with the stroke of a paintbrush or with the uncovering of a scar. Let The Emperor of Paris unwrap its story for you.
“The place I call there is not as cruel as you may think and you don’t have to go far to reach it. Sometimes all you need do is walk to the end of the street and turn the corner. And remember, no matter how far you wander, here will always be here.“

The Rent Collector

Book : The Rent Collector Author : Camron Wright Edition : Hardcover, Shadow Mountain, 2012 The cover of this book belies the na...