This is a beautifully crafted, unforgettable story by an author who has become one of my favorites.
This book switches back and forth in time between a small town in northern France during World War I, and London in the present day. Unlike many other books using that narrative device, the stories not only are totally relevant to one another but both time periods are of equal interest.
The part from the past takes place in the town of St. Peronne during the occupation of the Germans from 1914-1918. It is interesting that this occupation has received very little attention even in histories of World War I. As one researcher notes:
“In many ways the first occupation was harsher and more destructive than that of 1940 to 1944, as the French were largely unprepared for the suffering brought on by occupation and the Germans occupied a smaller area of French territory, allowing them extra resources to control daily life. [Moreover,] [t]he civilian experience, including the personal hardships suffered by the occupied French and collaboration (both forced and voluntary) between German occupier and French occupée, influenced the French culture and identity, as well as Franco-German relations into the 20th century.”
The author does an excellent job in chronicling what happened in northern France without giving the reader the least sensation of getting a history lesson. She simply integrates it into the story which is at turns, heartbreaking, heartwarming, inspiring, tragic, and lovely.
In the present, we meet 32-year-old Liv Halston, who after four years is still mourning the untimely death of her husband from heart failure. She draws comfort from the painting he bought for her on their honeymoon. It is a portrait of Sophie Lefevre, who is the woman we learn to know in the part of the book from 1916. Unfortunately, Sophie’s descendants have decided to try to reclaim the now-valuable painting under the rules of the Hague Convention for the recovery of art stolen during wartime.
And there is a further complication: the man in charge of trying to recover her beloved picture is one that Sophie not only knows, but a man she thought just might be the one to help her finally move on from her husband’s death.
Evaluation: This author is such a good writer. She makes you feel all the feelings. Whatever she is writing about, she adds so much passion and imbues it with so many interesting aspects that you feel like your heart has been wrapped in a blanket, your mind has been lit up by a spotlight, and you feel darn happy to be a reader!
Published in the United States by Viking Penguin, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2012