Julie Orringer’s first novel, The Invisible Bridge, is an old-fashioned epic of two families caught in the maelstrom of Europe of the 1930s and ’40s. Demonstrating a sure-handed ability to balance intense personal drama with an account of the era’s epochal events, Orringer has created a work of impressive scope and emotional depth.
Andras Lévi, an idealistic young Hungarian Jew, arrives in Paris in 1937 to study architecture on scholarship at the École Spéciale. Soon he meets fellow Hungarian Klara Morgenstern, a gifted dance instructor nine years his senior and the mother of a teenage daughter. Her enigmatic past at first distances her from Andras and then draws the two closer as the storm clouds of war gather over France.
But Andras’ promising career is cut short in 1939, when his visa is revoked and he’s forced to return to Hungary. Klara soon follows, and the second half of the novel traces their increasingly desperate struggle to survive as Hitler’s armies move across Europe. Andras is drafted into the labor service and dispatched to a life of backbreaking and dehumanizing toil.
Orringer spares few details in describing the ever more perilous conditions he and his brother Tibor, a medical student who eventually joins him, must face. Meanwhile, Klara and her family slowly slip into penury, as representatives of Hungary’s puppet government extract escalating bribes to allow her to maintain a grim secret from her past. The odds that all of these characters will escape a dire fate grow longer as the novel proceeds, but the resolution for each is anything but predictable.
The story of Hungary’s Jews—more than 400,000 of them slaughtered by the Nazis—is perhaps not as well known as those of some of Europe’s larger Jewish communities. Though the pace of the novel flags at times, it’s easy to forgive Orringer’s desire to share with readers her intimate knowledge of the story’s time and place. In recounting the daring gestures, the miraculous escapes and coincidences separating those who lived from those who died in the blackness of the Holocaust, she captures most vividly “the excruciating smallness, the pinpoint upon which every life was balanced.”