Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind


When I was in college, I took a Popular Literature class where I spent the quarter reading "genre" books and dissecting the formula. We read the gamut of stories and learned about the assorted themes. From Western Literature to Science Fiction; from Mystery to Romance to Adventure novels, we covered all of the major buckets.  In doing so, I started seeing the formulas even if I didn't want to see them.

I couldn't "un"see what was in front of me.  As a result, even today, when a writer doesn't cloak their formula; when they lean too heavily on the standard tricks and tools, I am either distracted or annoyed.

Unfortunately, when I read The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes, I was both.

Or, more precisely, I was distracted and/or annoyed for about half of the book.

The novel is broken into two distinct parts.  The first plot line takes place during World War I in France where a woman, Sophie, is left behind while her artist husband is away at war. Sophie's portrait hangs in her hotel and attracts the attention of a German Kommandant who becomes obsessive about the painting.

A long narrative weaves around Sophie and the Kommandant, and both the tension and narrative are well done. This thread receives the best treatment from Moyes who writes details of the war and an awkward relationship which, to my untrained eye, read as a plausible story.

However, the second part of the book takes place in current times where a young widow, Liv, discovers her painting (of Sophie from the earlier narrative) has a disputed past, and she may be forced to return it to the rightful owners.

From that quick description, the table is set for a story which could be fun.  After reading You Before Me, which I enjoyed,  I was expecting fast-paced writing and plenty of twists and turns.  However, what I received is pure, unvarnished formula.

I don't want to give away plot points, but a quick list should make my point.  There is:

A dead architect husband who left behind a dream house A "cute meet" of a divorced, exhausted dad Evil clients A scheming older woman preying on her employee Financial problems A woman who lives on the street and whose only purpose is to give the best line of the book

And finally, there are far too many crazy circumstances to be believed.  In the opening scene Liv's former student (who happens to be a waitress where Liv is dining) rescues her from a boring dinner.  This student happens to be living in the restaurant and ends up living with Liv.  The student happens to work a second job caring for the elderly, is fluent in French (both facts are needed in a plot twist), and knows how to talk Liv into almost anything.

The whole thing is distractingly convenient. And I'm barely scratching the surface.

People on Amazon love this book, so maybe I'm crazy.  However, I can't seem not to see what I see.

Perhaps I should adapt Mindy Kaling's approach to romantic comedies and apply it to pulp fiction.  In last week's book Kaling said, “I simply regard romantic comedies as a sub-genre of sci-fi, in which the world created therein has different rules than my regular human world.”

I think to enjoy this book you need to be comfortable with a contrived and utterly predictable plot.