If you're still looking for a "big" novel to carry into the summer holidays - one in which you can lose yourself without the guilty suspicion that you're slumming - then Julie Orringer's "The Invisible Bridge" is the book you want.
It has been seven years since Orringer made her hardcover debut with an intelligent, stylistically assured collection of fiercely, if darkly, observed short stories titled "How to Breathe Underwater." In the time since, there has been a trickle of additional stories and occasional literary chat about a novel long in preparation.
"It's important to realize that the study of fiction and the development of one's writing is a long, long process and cannot be rushed," Orringer told one interviewer. (In this era of instant memoirs and post-literate fiction, it seems almost a quaint sentiment, a charming recollection, perhaps of Chaucer's once familiar dictum: "The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne.")
Readers will be delighted she took her time, because "The Invisible Bridge" is a stunning first novel, not just in the manner that Orringer's acclaimed short stories seemed to predict, but in a wholly unexpected fashion. Her short fiction is resolutely contemporary, closely - almost obsessively - observed and firmly situated in the time and place we now inhabit. "The Invisible Bridge," by contrast, is in every admirable sense an "ambitious" historical novel, in which large human emotions - profound love, familial bonds and the deepest of human loyalties - play out against the backdrop of unimaginable cruelty that was the Holocaust.
It's hard to imagine a fictional setting more heavily strewn with literary and historical mines, but Orringer traverses this perilous rhetorical terrain with remarkable - and, more important, convincing, self-possession. In the process, she illuminates a chapter of the 20th century's great tragedy that is, perhaps, less known to many American readers: the fate of Hungarian Jewry.
Her narrative is built around the relationship of Andras and Klara. He is the middle of three talented Hungarian Jewish brothers and an aspiring architect, forced by his increasingly anti-Semitic homeland's university quotas to pursue his education in 1930s Paris, where he meets and is influenced by Le Corbusier. It's there that he also encounters the mysterious Claire Morgenstern, also a Hungarian emigre whose name change from Klara Hasz is only one of the secrets she has been forced to keep. Klara, nine years Andras Levi's senior, is a ballet instructor and choreographer and, while he is working as a set designer and decorator in her theater, they fall deeply in love.
Soon, however, the shadows of the coming war force them back to Hungary, where they soon are caught up in the almost hallucinatory history that ultimately decimated one of Mitteleuropa's most glittering Jewish communities.
The majority of Hungarian Jews were among the region's most assimilated; many occupied leading positions in the arts, sciences and commerce and had served with distinction in their country's military during World War I. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, the Kingdom of Hungary slid irrevocably into a politics dominated by right-wing nationalism and fascism, ultimately slipping into Nazi Germany's embrace. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Hungary sent most of its troops to his aid; most never returned. Jews were first isolated and dispossessed and, then, drafted into forced labor battalions that sustained the war effort at home and the Hungarian troops in the field.
Although physical abuse became more common and more brutal as the war dragged on, it wasn't until near the conflict's end, when the Germans overthrew the Hungarian fascists and occupied the country, that deportation to the death camps began. In the end, a Jewish community that once numbered more than 800,000 was reduced to about a quarter of that size.
Andras and his two brothers - Tibor, an aspiring physician, and Matyas, a cabaret tap dancer - are forced into the labor battalions. Orringer's evocation of their suffering is remarkable and remarkably affecting, but so, too, is her re-creation of wartime Budapest - including the cafes, newspaper offices, markets and the Sunday luncheon table. All rings true.
So too do her accounts of the emotional ties between not only the lovers but their extended families. It is the persistence of their affection for one another, the sacrifices it engenders and its sustaining power in the face of incalculable cruelty, that elevates "The Invisible Bridge" out of unendurable tragedy.
Anyone who ever has spent time in conversation with Holocaust survivors or read their firsthand account of those years will recognize, too, how precisely Orringer has captured the role coincidence and chance played in dividing those who lived from those who were murdered.
"We still live in an era shaped by the aftermath of the Second World War, and we're still drawn together and pushed apart by forces that feel (and often are) beyond our control," Orringer recently told an interviewer. As it turns out, the story around which she built "The Invisible Bridge" was inspired, in part, by that of her grandparents.
"Around 10 years ago, when I was planning a trip to Paris for the first time, my grandfather mentioned that he'd lived in Paris for two years when he was a young man," she explained. "That was the first I'd heard of it. He told me he had a scholarship to architecture school - as a Hungarian Jew, he'd been shut out of admission to Hungarian schools. ... He studied in Paris for a couple of years before the war began, and then he lost his student visa, had to return to Hungary, and was conscripted into a forced labor company. ... As I started to ask questions about that time, a series of amazing and devastating stories emerged, and a novel began to take shape in my mind - the story of a young Hungarian Jewish man who'd envisioned one kind of life but who was forced by the turnings of history to live quite another."
It is a life powerfully, unsentimentally and inspiringly evoked in this gracefully written and altogether remarkable first novel.