Julie Orringer’s Bridge of Words

This review appears in the January 2011 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida) and L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee & Charlotte Counties).

The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer.  Knopf. 624 pages. $26.95 [e-book and paperback available]

Though some critics have felt that the plot of this remarkable novel is overly contrived, I was willing to give it a break. Given its romantic elements and its concern with human destiny, the coincidences that drive the plot did not seem out of bounds. Besides, the book has so many strengths that a bit of contrivance can be forgiven. 

In dealing with Hungarian Jews living in France and then back in Hungary during WWII, and in taking us through the foreshadowing, onset, and full madness of The Holocaust in those settings and several others, Orringer does an exceptional job on many levels. She manages a wide scope of events and characters, keeping our attention on the smaller story of the key players and families while suggesting and often elaborating the larger story – the enormity of the forces that at once surround them and permeate them. Orringer’s ability to perform meticulous historical research and then refashion it into action and emotion is astounding. Her portraits of places are always richly detailed and authentic; more than merely giving us the sensory realm her characters move through, Julie Orringer reaches for and conjures the intangible, atmospherics of a place – its very spirit and soul.

The love affair between a naïve architecture student, Andras, and a somewhat older and more worldly dance instructor, Klara, is told with boldness and nuance. The young man, against all odds, has somehow been able to leave Hungary and enter a respected institute in Paris. The thirtyish woman, with a daughter old enough to be the student’s girl friend, is also Hungarian. She has been living in Parisian exile for reasons that have to do with her past. Orringer manages the ways in which their relationship builds, ebbs, and flows with great mastery of the processes of the heart.

Eventually, both must return to Hungary – just when Hungary is increasingly subject to Hitler’s sway. The young man is impressed into a Jewish forced labor unit that supports the Hungarian army. The woman and her family struggle through the extreme deprivations of a city under siege, while the man is literally enslaved. Orringer’s descriptions of the physical tortures that the youth endures through frozen, virtually foodless months are harrowing. Andras is reduced to being a beast of burden, and then reduced to less than that. Klara’s anguish is physically less severe, but the psychological torment of both is profoundly agonizing.

Orringer is at her best in showing how each of the two major characters, the lovers, is measured against the other. In lives so beaten down, in situations so desperate, can there be a spark that allows a relationship to flourish on any level? When you are numb, exhausted, bewildered, dehumanized – can you still care and still give? The author weaves these questions through scenes of despair and hope.

The Invisible Bridge, a book of epic scope and power, redeems its horrifying subject matter with astonishing compassion and literary grace. For obvious reasons, including its length, it is sometimes a difficult book to keep reading. However, stay with it. The arduous journey has many rewards.

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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