DH: Julie Orringer is the author of a highly praised collection of stories, How to Breathe Underwater. But nothing could have prepared the reader for the magnificence of The Invisible Bridge. Debut novel? I don’t believe it! Julie must have about a half dozen unpublished novels buried in some capacious desk file.
IB is a historical novel which takes place centrally in Paris and Budapest in the 1930’s and 40’s. Some horrific chapters are set on the Eastern front and a tranquil coda is set in 21st century New York City. The scale is epic.
Searching for comparisons, I came up with War and Peace. I know that comparing a contemporary author to Tolstoy sounds silly. But there is something of the same commitment to telling the story of a people while also making the academic word “humanities” count for something. Orringer applies acid to the plate of her character’s lives.
For a lay person, I’m pretty well read in history. I was the only freshman in my high school class who had read Shirer’s massive The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. But one of the fascinating and morbid pleasures of IB was learning about a missing chapter in my understanding of Hitler’s Europe. That was the role and the fate of Hungary as Germany’s hapless ally. Tempted by Hitler with the promise of fulfilling jingoistic territorial claims, Hungary took the bait and ended up in the the lowest circle of hell. Maybe the former half of the Austro-Hungarian empire didn’t have a choice. But one interesting question that this novel raises is whether you have choice to go to hell or not.
Julie Orringer is a methodical storyteller. You have to be to superlatively organize just under 600 pages of story. But I’m going to insist that you read this novel. You’ll likely rank it as one the your top ten reads for 2010. So far for me, it’s in position number one.
We meet Andras and his brother, Tibor, in a Budapest railway station. Andras is headed to study architecture in the only reputable school in Paris that he could get into. Money is tight in his family. His father owns a small lumberyard. The Sorbonne being off-limits, he gets into an establishment that sounds more like a technical school. He gets in on a scholarship which is based on some illustrations he did for a Budapest magazine. He’s also going to deliver a large box to a student in Paris who is better connected than the struggling Andras since this guy got into the Sorbonne. Also as a favor to the same family, he will mail a letter from Paris to a mysterious address. On the train he meets a middle-aged man who runs a theater in Paris.
The plot set-up that I’ve described above is the foundation of near 600 brilliantly lucid pages. It’s like the 20 pages that Zadie Smith talks about in Changing My Mind. The germinating 20 pages, so difficult to write, but on which the whole story structure depends, like the root of a vine.
In Paris, Andras will meet the classmates and friends with which he will construct his life. Orringer takes her time over these relationships and you will care about these people as much as she does. Darkness descends slowly around them, a darkness so profound that, along with the characters, you will have to disbelieve that anything could be so bad.
“Such trust. Such hope. What would the world do to a boy like Andras Levi, Novak didn’t want to know”. from The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. Coming from Knopf in May 2010