Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Most days now his loss is a part of her, an awkward weight she carries around, invisible to everyone else, subtly altering the way she moves through the day.

Jojo Moyes is a total guilty pleasure (I devoured Me Before You and After You) and The Girl You Left Behind did not disappoint. It's the story of a painting that begins its life in the home of the subject, Sophie, a French woman whose husband (the artist) has gone off to fight in World War One and ends it on the walls of a widow, Liv, in modern day London--a wedding gift from a dead husband. The painting passes through many hands in between, most notably the Kommandant of the German unit stationed in Sophie's town, whom Sophie befriends in an attempt to reconnect with her husband.

The story weaves back and forth between France and London, and while Moyes is known for her steamy romances, it reads more like historical fiction than it does trashy romance novel. One of thing Moyes does well is building ethical dilemmas and guiding her reader through both sides. It's always a little bit more obvious than it needs to be (she doesn't seem to trust her readers to do much inferring on their own), but the issues are always engaging. This novel includes two: Sophie's decision to befriend the German Kommandant in an attempt to gather information on her husband who has disappeared and Liv's quest to keep the painting that was once Sophie's; a firm who specializes in returning art stolen by Nazis to their original families is working to take the painting, Liv's last connection to her dead husband, and return it to a French family who clearly intends to sell it. The debates are not particularly artfully written, but they're thought provoking, and Moyes does a nice job of pacing things out for you--even if she does do all the thinking for you along the way.

Liv's grief is painted well, as is Sophie's despair. The novel does include some romance, but both women have depth and purpose on their own (which I feel like is often missing in portraits of grieving or romancing women).

Overall, The Girl You Left Behind is everything I've come to expect from Jojo Moyes: thoughtful and easy to read, engaging, and a little less fluffy than the others.

How fragile life was, how fragile they were.
Love.It was the beginning and end of everything, the foundation and the ceiling and the air in between. It didn’t matter that she was broken and ugly and sick. He loved her and she loved him, All her life she had waited -longed for - people to love her, but now she saw what she really mattered. She had known love, been blessed by it.
Krsitin Hannah's The Nightingale is another story of love, loss, and war in France. It follows two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle as they take on the German invasion, each in their own way. Vianne is a mother and wife, and her war is a small, private one. She works to protect her daughter, even after her husband leaves for the front and a series of Nazis is billetted in her home. Isabelle, more hardheaded and rebellious is fighting her war on a broader scale. She joins the resistance and becomes "The Nightingale," escorting British and American pilots out of occupied France and to safety.

Hannah's imagining of two female perspectives of war is beautifully written and captures two sides of the feminine experience: one active, one passive. It's not sugar coated; the violence, sacrifice, and fear of both sides are palpable, and the value and challenge of both becomes clear. The historical conflict and the tension between characters (especially between the two sisters) keeps the story from being too saccharine. The relations hips feel real and broken and fraught in ways that make the characters that much more believable (if not more likeable). The only disappointment on that front is Vianne and Isabelle's father, an angry drunk who has a not particularly believable 180 late in the book. I was enjoying his irascible dislikeableness and annoyed that Hannah chose to redeem him.

I loved this book, partly because I'm a sucker for WWII fiction, but partly because it's a beautifully written piece of historical fiction. Also (a small spoiler alert), my cousin was a member of the Resistance in France and died in Ravensbruck, the camp where Vianne ends up, so I especially enjoyed Hannah's recreation of the Resistance structure: their meetings, networks, and systems.

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