The Girl You Left Behind is a hauntingly romantic and utterly irresistible new
weepy from Jojo Moyes, author of the Richard and Judy bestseller, Me Before You.
What happened to the girl you left behind?
France, 1916. Sophie Lefevre must keep her family safe whilst her adored husband
Edouard fights at the front. When she is ordered to serve the German officers who descend
on her hotel each evening, her home becomes riven by fierce tensions. And from the moment
the new Kommandant sets eyes on Sophie's portrait - painted by Edouard - a dangerous
obsession is born, which will lead Sophie to make a dark and terrible decision.
Almost a century later, and Sophie's portrait hangs in the home of Liv Halston, a
wedding gift from her young husband before he died. A chance encounter reveals the
painting's true worth, and its troubled history. A history that is about to resurface and
turn Liv's life upside down all over again . . .
In The Girl You Left Behind two young women, separated by a century, are united
in their determination to fight for what they love most - whatever the cost.
Praise for Jojo Moyes:
'Destined to be the novel that friends press upon each other more than any other . . .
Moyes does a majestic job of conjuring a cast of characters who are charismatic, credible
and utterly compelling' Independent on Sunday
'This truly beautiful story made us laugh, smile and sob like a baby' Closer
Jojo Moyes is a novelist and a journalist. She worked at the Independent for
ten years before leaving to write full time. Her previous novels have all been critically
acclaimed and include the Richard and Judy bestseller Me Before You, The Last
Letter from Your Lover, Ship of Brides and Foreign Fruit.
» Read the opening pages of The Girl You Left Behind by downloading the Penguin Taster here
» Visit Penguin Tasters
I was dreaming of food. Crisp baguettes, the flesh of the
bread a virginal white, still steaming from the oven, and
ripe cheese, its borders creeping towards the edge of the
plate. Grapes and plums, stacked high in bowls, dusky and
fragrant, their scent filling the air. I was about to reach out
and take one, when my sister stopped me. ‘Get off,’ I murmured.
‘Sophie. Wake up.’
I could taste that cheese. I was going to have a mouthful
of Reblochon, smear it on a hunk of that warm bread,
then pop a grape into my mouth. I could already taste the
intense sweetness, smell the rich aroma.
But there it was, my sister’s hand on my wrist, stopping
me. The plates were disappearing, the scents fading. I
reached out to them but they began to pop, like soap
‘They have Aurélien!’
I turned on to my side and blinked. My sister was
wearing a cotton bonnet, as I was, to keep warm. Her
face, even in the feeble light of her candle, was leached
of colour, her eyes wide with shock. ‘They have Aurélien.
My mind began to clear. From below us came the sound
of men shouting, their voices bouncing off the stone
courtyard, the hens squawking in their coop. In the thick
dark, the air vibrated with some terrible purpose. I sat
upright in bed, dragging my gown around me, struggling
to light the candle on my bedside table.
I stumbled past her to the window and stared down
into the courtyard at the soldiers, illuminated by the headlights
of their vehicle, and my younger brother, his arms
around his head, trying to avoid the rifle butts that landed
blows on him.
‘They know about the pig.’
‘Monsieur Suel must have informed on us. I heard
them shouting from my room. They say they’ll take
Aurélien if he doesn’t tell them where it is.’
‘He will say nothing,’ I said.
We flinched as we heard our brother cry out. I hardly
recognized my sister then: she looked twenty years older
than her twenty-four years. I knew her fear was mirrored
in my own face. This was what we had dreaded.
‘They have a Kommandant with them. If they find it,’
Hélène whispered, her voice cracking with panic, ‘they’ll
arrest us all. You know what took place in Arras. They’ll
make an example of us. What will happen to the children?’
My mind raced, fear that my brother might speak out
making me stupid. I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders and tiptoed to the window, peering out at the
courtyard. The presence of a Kommandant suggested these
were not just drunken soldiers looking to take out their
frustrations with a few threats and knocks: we were in
trouble. His presence meant we had committed a crime
that should be taken seriously.
‘They will find it, Sophie. It will take them minutes.
And then . . .’ Hélène’s voice rose, lifted by panic.
My thoughts turned black. I closed my eyes. And then
I opened them. ‘Go downstairs,’ I said. ‘Plead ignorance.
Ask him what Aurélien has done wrong. Talk to him, distract
him. Just give me some time before they come into
‘What are you going to do?’
I gripped my sister’s arm. ‘Go. But tell them nothing,
you understand? Deny everything.’
My sister hesitated, then ran towards the corridor, her
nightgown billowing behind her. I’m not sure I had ever
felt as alone as I did in those few seconds, fear gripping
my throat and the weight of my family’s fate upon me. I
ran into Father’s study and scrabbled in the drawers of the
great desk, hurling its contents – old pens, scraps of
paper, pieces from broken clocks and ancient bills ‒ on to
the floor, thanking God when I finally found what I was
searching for. Then I ran downstairs, opened the cellar
door and skipped down the cold stone stairs, so surefooted
now in the dark that I barely needed the fluttering
glow of the candle. I lifted the heavy latch to the back
cellar, which had once been stacked to the roof with beer
kegs and good wine, slid one of the empty barrels aside
and opened the door of the old cast-iron bread oven.
The piglet, still only half grown, blinked sleepily. It lifted
itself to its feet, peered out at me from its bed of straw and
grunted. Surely I’ve told you about the pig? We liberated it
during the requisition of Monsieur Girard’s farm. Like a
gift from God, it had strayed in the chaos, meandering
away from the piglets being loaded into the back of a German
truck and was swiftly swallowed by the thick skirts of
Grandma Poilâne. We’ve been fattening it on acorns and
scraps for weeks, in the hope of raising it to a size great
enough for us all to have some meat. The thought of that
crisp skin, that moist pork, has kept the inhabitants of Le
Coq Rouge going for the past month.
Outside I heard my brother yelp again, then my sister’s
voice, rapid and urgent, cut short by the harsh tones of a
German officer. The pig looked at me with intelligent,
understanding eyes, as if it already knew its fate.
‘I’m so sorry, mon petit,’ I whispered, ‘but this really is
the only way.’ And I brought down my hand.
I was outside in a matter of moments. I had woken
Mimi, telling her only that she must come but to stay silent
‒ the child has seen so much these last months that she
obeys without question. She glanced up at me holding her
baby brother, slid out of bed and placed a hand in mine.
The air was sharp with the approach of winter, the
smell of woodsmoke lingering in the air from our brief
fire earlier in the evening. I saw the Kommandant through
the stone archway of the back door and hesitated. It was
not Herr Becker, whom we knew and despised. This was
a slimmer man, clean-shaven, impassive. Even in the dark
I could see intelligence, not brutish ignorance, in his face,
which made me afraid.
This new Kommandant was gazing speculatively up at our
windows, perhaps considering whether this building might
provide a more suitable billet than the Fourrier farm, where
senior German officers slept. I suspect he knew that our
elevated aspect would give him a vantage-point across the
town. There were stables for horses and ten bedrooms,
from the days when our home was the town’s thriving hotel.
Hélène was on the cobbles, shielding Aurélien with her
One of his men had raised his rifle, but the Kommandant
lifted his hand. ‘Stand up,’ he ordered them. Hélène scrambled
backwards, away from him. I glimpsed her face, taut
I felt Mimi’s hand tighten round mine as she saw her
mother, and I gave hers a squeeze, even though my heart
was in my mouth. And I strode out. ‘What, in God’s name,
is going on?’ My voice rang out in the yard.
The Kommandant glanced towards me, surprised by my
tone: a young woman walking through the arched entrance
to the farmyard, a thumb-sucking child at her skirts,
another swaddled and clutched to her chest. My night
bonnet sat slightly askew, my white cotton nightgown so
worn now that it barely registered as fabric against my
skin. I prayed that he could not hear the almost audible
thumping of my heart.
I addressed him directly: ‘And for what supposed misdemeanour
have your men come to punish us now?’
I guessed he had not heard a woman speak to him in
this way since his last leave home. The silence that fell
upon the courtyard was steeped in shock. My brother and
sister, on the ground, twisted round, the better to see me,
Only too aware of where such insubordination might leave
I could see he was checking for the presence of my
wedding ring. He needn’t have bothered: like most women
in our area, I had long since sold it for food.
‘Madame. We have information that you are harbouring
illegal livestock.’ His French was passable, suggesting previous
postings in the occupied territory, his voice calm.
This was not a man who felt threatened by the unexpected.
‘A reliable source tells us that you are keeping a pig on
the premises. You will be aware that, under the directive,
the penalty for withholding livestock from the administration
I held his gaze. ‘And I know exactly who would inform
you of such a thing. It’s Monsieur Suel, non?’ My cheeks
were flushed with colour; my hair, twisted into a long plait
that hung over my shoulder, felt electrified. It prickled at
the nape of my neck.
The Kommandant turned to one of his minions. The
man’s glance sideways told him this was true.
‘Monsieur Suel, Herr Kommandant, comes here at
least twice a month attempting to persuade us that in the
absence of our husbands we are in need of his particular
brand of comfort. Because we have chosen not to avail
ourselves of his supposed kindness, he repays us with
rumours and a threat to our lives.’
‘The authorities would not act unless the source were
‘I would argue, Herr Kommandant, that this visit suggests
The look he gave me was impenetrable. He turned on
his heel and walked towards the house door. I followed
him, half tripping over my skirts in my attempt to keep
up. I knew the mere act of speaking so boldly to him
might be considered a crime. And yet, at that moment, I
was no longer afraid.
‘Look at us, Kommandant. Do we look as though we
are feasting on beef, on roast lamb, on fillet of pork?’ He
turned, his eyes flicking towards my bony wrists, just visible
at the sleeves of my gown. I had lost two inches from
my waist in the last year alone. ‘Are we grotesquely plump
with the bounty of our hotel? We have three hens left of
two dozen. Three hens that we have the pleasure of keeping
and feeding so that your men might take the eggs. We,
meanwhile, live on what the German authorities deem to
be a diet of decreasing rations of meat and flour, and bread
made from grit and bran so poor we would not use it to
He was in the back hallway, his heels echoing on the
flagstones. He hesitated, then walked through to the bar
and barked an order. A soldier appeared from nowhere
and handed him a lamp.
‘We have no milk to feed our babies, our children weep
with hunger, we become ill from lack of nutrition. And
still you come here in the middle of the night to terrify
two women and brutalize an innocent boy, to beat us and
threaten us, because you heard a rumour from an immoral
man that we were feasting ?’
My hands were shaking. He saw the baby squirm, and I
realized I was so tense that I was holding it too tightly. I
stepped back, adjusted the shawl, crooned to it. Then I
lifted my head. I could not hide the bitterness and anger
in my voice.
‘Search our home, then, Kommandant. Turn it upside
down and destroy what little has not already been destroyed.
Search all the outbuildings too, those that your men have
not already stripped for their own wants. When you find
this mythical pig, I hope your men dine well on it.’
I held his gaze for just a moment longer than he might
have expected. Through the window I could make out
my sister wiping Aurélien’s wounds with her skirts, trying
to stem the blood. Three German soldiers stood over
My eyes were used to the dark now, and I saw that the
Kommandant was wrong-footed. His men, their eyes uncertain,
were waiting for him to give the orders. He could
instruct them to strip our house to the beams and arrest
us all to pay for my extraordinary outburst. But I knew he
was thinking of Suel, whether he might have been misled.
He did not look the kind of man to relish the possibility
of being seen to be wrong.
When Édouard and I used to play poker, he had laughed
and said I was an impossible opponent as my face never
revealed my true feelings. I told myself to remember
those words now: this was the most important game I
would ever play. We stared at each other, the Kommandant
and I. I felt, briefly, the whole world still around us: I could
hear the distant rumble of the guns at the Front, my sister’s
coughing, the scrabbling of our poor, scrawny hens
disturbed in their coop. It faded until just he and I faced
one another, each gambling on the truth. I swear I could
hear my very heart beating.
‘What is this?’
He held up the lamp, and it was dimly illuminated in pale
gold light: the portrait Édouard had painted of me when
we were first married. There I was, in that first year, 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.
He lifted the lamp a little higher so that he could see it
more clearly. Do not put it there, Sophie, Hélène had warned.
It will invite trouble.
When he finally turned to me, it was as if he had had to
tear his eyes from it. He looked at my face, then back at
the painting. ‘My husband painted it.’ I don’t know why I
felt the need to tell him that.
Perhaps it was the certainty of my righteous indignation.
Perhaps it was the obvious difference between the
girl in the picture and the girl who stood before him. Perhaps
it was the weeping blonde child who stood at my
feet. It is possible that even Kommandants, two years into
this occupation, have become weary of harassing us for
He looked at the painting a moment longer, then at his
‘I think we have made ourselves clear, Madame. Our
conversation is not finished. But I will not disturb you
He caught the flash of surprise on my face, barely suppressed,
and I saw that it satisfied something in him. It
was perhaps enough for him to know I had believed
myself doomed. He was smart, this man, and subtle. I
would have to be wary.
His soldiers turned, blindly obedient as ever, and walked
out towards their vehicle, their uniforms silhouetted
against the headlights. I followed him and stood just outside
the door. The last I heard of his voice was the order
to the driver to make for the town.
We waited as the military vehicle travelled back down
the road, its headlights feeling their way along the pitted
surface. Hélène had begun to shake. She scrambled to her
feet, her hand white-knuckled at her brow, her eyes tightly
shut. Aurélien stood awkwardly beside me, holding Mimi’s
hand, embarrassed by his childish tears. I waited for the
last sounds of the engine to die away. It whined over the
hill, as if it, too, were acting under protest.
‘Are you hurt, Aurélien?’ I touched his head. Flesh
wounds. And bruises. What kind of men attacked an
He flinched. ‘It didn’t hurt,’ he said. ‘They didn’t frighten
‘I thought he would arrest you,’ my sister said. ‘I thought
he would arrest us all.’ I was afraid when she looked like
that: as if she were teetering on the edge of some vast
abyss. She wiped her eyes and forced a smile as she
crouched to hug her daughter. ‘Silly Germans. They gave
us all a fright, didn’t they? Silly Maman for being frightened.’
The child watched her mother, silent and solemn. Sometimes
I wondered if I would ever see Mimi laugh again.
‘I’m sorry. I’m all right now,’ she went on. ‘Let’s all go
inside. Mimi, we have a little milk I will warm for you.’ She
wiped her hands on her bloodied gown, and held her
hands towards me for the baby. ‘You want me to take Jean?’
I had started to tremble convulsively, as if I had only
just realized how afraid I should have been. My legs felt
watery, their strength seeping into the cobblestones. I felt
a desperate urge to sit down. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I suppose you
should.’My sister reached out, then gave a small cry. Nestling in
the blankets, swaddled neatly so that it was barely exposed
to the night air, was the pink, hairy snout of the piglet.
‘Jean is asleep upstairs,’ I said. I thrust a hand at the wall
to keep myself upright.
Aurélien looked over her shoulder. They all stared at it.
‘Is it dead?'
‘Chloroformed. I remembered Papa had a bottle in his
study, from his butterfly-collecting days. I think it will wake
up. But we’re going to have to find somewhere else to keep
it for when they return. And you know they will return.’
Aurélien smiled then, a rare, slow smile of delight.
Hélène stooped to show Mimi the comatose little pig, and
they grinned. Hélène kept touching its snout, clamping a
hand over her face, as if she couldn’t believe what she was
‘You held the pig before them? They came here and
you held it out in front of their noses? And then you told
them off for coming here?’ Her voice was incredulous.
‘In front of their snouts,’ said Aurélien, who seemed
suddenly to have recovered some of his swagger. ‘Hah!
You held it in front of their snouts!’
I sat down on the cobbles and began to laugh. I laughed
until my skin grew chilled and I didn’t know whether I
was laughing or weeping. My brother, perhaps afraid I was
becoming hysterical, took my hand and rested against me.
He was fourteen, sometimes bristling like a man, sometimes
childlike in his need for reassurance.
Hélène was still deep in thought. ‘If I had known . . .’
she said. ‘How did you become so brave, Sophie? My little
sister! Who made you like this? You were a mouse when
we were children. A mouse!’
I wasn’t sure I knew the answer.
And then, as we finally walked back into the house, as
Hélène busied herself with the milk pan and Aurélien
began to wash his poor, battered face, I stood before the
That girl, the girl Édouard had married, looked back
with an expression I no longer recognized. He had seen it
in me long before anyone else did: it speaks of knowledge,
that smile, of satisfaction gained and given. It speaks
of pride. When his Parisian friends had found his love of
me – a shop girl – inexplicable, he had just smiled because
he could already see this in me.
I never knew if he understood that it was only there
because of him.
I stood and gazed at her and, for a few seconds, I
remembered how it had felt to be that girl, free of hunger,
of fear, consumed only by idle thoughts of what private
moments I might spend with Édouard. She reminded me
that the world is capable of beauty, and that there were
once things – art, joy, love – that filled my world, instead
of fear and nettle soup and curfews. I saw him in my
expression. And then I realized what I had just done. He
had reminded me of my own strength, of how much I
had left in me with which to fight.
When you return, Édouard, I swear I will once again be
the girl you painted.