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Review: The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer

bridge_cover_235.jpg602 pp., Knopf, $26.95

by Sally Franson
A lot of fuss has been made about the length of Julie Orringer's debut novel, The Invisible Bridge. Coming in at a whopping 602 pages, this sweeping historical epic, which has earned itself references to Tolstoy and Eliot, isn't exactly the stuff that summer vacations are made of.

When I cracked the cover and saw that the story begins in 1937 Hungary, I groaned. Eastern Europe, on the cusp of World War II? Not quite beach-blanket material.

But the miracle of Orringer's novel, on which she worked for seven years following her lauded story collection, How To Breathe Underwater, is that it manages to be both weighty and riveting. As Andras Lévi, an architectural student, prepares to leave Budapest for a scholarship in Paris, he is entrusted with a letter to one Madame Morgenstern, a mysterious ballet teacher nine years Andras' senior who harbors a hidden past. The two Hungarians strike up a passionate and complicated relationship, which is made even more fraught by the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe.

Orringer subtly weaves the pivotal events of the time (Kristallnacht, the Sudetenland's annexation) into her narrative, and one cannot help but carry a sense of doom. France passes xenophobic laws that cause Andras' visa to be revoked, and he must return to Budapest for its renewal. Klara travels with him and the two are married, yet marital bliss remains out of grasp. Andras, along with his two brothers, is immediately drafted into the Hungarian work force and subjected to hard labor for months at a time in Transylvania, Carpathia, and the Ukraine. Subjected to horrific conditions and brutalizing commanders, only the thought of his family keeps Andras sane. Hungary's leadership attempts to stave off Hitler's "final solution," but succeed for only so long. Ghettos are formed, boxcar trains appear, and whispers of work camps drift in from the frozen tundras of Mitteleuropa.

Orringer, armed with her formidable research and natural empathy, deftly paints an accurate portrait of the creeping insidiousness of Hitler's end game, and through the eyes of Andras and his family one experiences the desperate hope of most Europeans that war can be avoided and life returned to normal. The novel greatly improves as it goes on; though the years in Paris are romantic and sumptuous, the love story tends toward the melodramatic and cannot compare to the harshly compelling tribulations of wartime.

The best of World War II fiction (Ursula Hegi's Stones From The River comes to mind) opens a door to a reality that in its horror is unimaginable to those of us from younger generations. "In the end, what astonished [Andras] most was not the vastness of it all - that was impossible to take in," Orringer writes. Yet through her masterful storytelling, one glimpses the vastness of Europe's suffering through this particular suffering, and this particular family. Cities fall, families perish, yet life goes on. And an epilogue set in present-day New York lends a measure of redemption to an otherwise heartbreaking ending.

The idea for The Invisible Bridge emerged from Orringer's own family history: her grandfather was an architecture student at the École Spéciale and worked in the Hungarian labor army. In writing this book she has done a great service to both her family and the rest of us. ("This is what we have lost, this is what is left, what we have to live with now.") It is a powerful reminder of the not-so-distant past, and a meditation on the importance of history, lest it repeat itself.