A scholarship to study architecture in Paris – a dream come true for a poor young Hungarian with a talent for drawing and an innovative vision. As you start reading The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer will lull you with her beautiful descriptions of Parisian streets, gardens, cafes…so that you will feel you are there.
“September was sending its first cool streamers into Paris…the scent of it blew through the channel of the Seine like the perfume of a girl on the threshold of a party…”
But too soon, she reveals that Andras is Jewish and Europe is becoming Hitler’s – changing everything and the real tale begins.
The story moves slowly carrying you through the lives of three young brothers – intelligent men, with strong family ties, who start out in pre-war Hungary with potential. Andras, the middle brother, is the fulcrum. He begins his studies in Paris, succeeds in creating designs admired by his professors, helps his older brother, Tibor, get sponsorship for medical studies in Italy, and mentors his younger brother, Matyas, a talented artist/performer. He meets his true love, Klara, a ballerina and a fugitive from Hungary, living in Paris.
As Andras’s life intersects with others, Orringer uses her characters to provide a deeper understanding of how relationships changed as the political temperature starts to rise. People can be cruel anytime, but suddenly Hitler has provided the excuse to concentrate on the baser instincts. Throughout, Orringer inserts the historical events affecting Jews in Europe; Andras is not oblivious to the escalating drama, but is still surprised when his life as a student is irrevocably affected.
Shifting gears into wartime, Orringer seasons her lengthy descriptions with astute observations – “…it made [Andras] aware of his own smallness in the world, his insignificance in the face of what might come…” Her detailed understanding of Jewish customs instills credibility, and Orringer uses an effective technique to keep you engaged: she gives you the outcome, then backtracks to how it got there. As she explains, her lengthy and precise clarifications of architectural and military procedures mirror Melville’s summation of whaling – you want to get on with the action, but are afraid you might miss something if you skip through. And, besides, the explanations are fascinating. Be prepared to read slowly.
The terrors of war take over, but art and family help Andras survive. The title is taken from an illustration he draws for a comic-relief newsletter while trying to live through the horror in the camps. Despite the danger and the consequences, Andras and his friend, Mendel, follow the success of their first publication, Snow Goose, with the Biting Fly, and finally The Crooked Rail – all cleverly disguised irreverent parodies (if you’ve ever read The Onion, these would be mild versions) with Andras’s illustrations on the forced labor camps. Ultimately, the price is too high for their attempt at rallying morale.
The description of the camps is sometimes too much to take, but Orringer softens the abominations with amazing insights –
“Andras thought, that war could lead you involuntarily to forgive a person who didn’t deserve forgiveness, just as it might make you kill a man you didn’t hate.”
More than the filth and humiliation of the conscripted Jewish work-camps, it’s the uncertainty and terror of the unknown that creeps in. Each short leave at home gives him new worries – Will his wife be safe? Will his brothers survive? Will anyone survive? Memories of better times sustain Andras: “He could feel his mother’s power now as if it were all happening again: the red cardboard box of his life was flying through the air, and his mother had stretched out her hands to catch it.”
Just as their lives seem to be given a reprieve, it starts again – “given and taken away” – an unending trial of abused men and destroyed families. Orringer’s grandfather lived through this time, and she has used him as her initial resource, but her research into Hungarian Jews and Hungary during the war is authentic and commanding.
This is a book you will not be able to bear to read at times, and then you will not want it to end – a haunting revelation of bittersweet anomalies – beautifully written. Thankfully, Orringer finishes with a better future for Andras – life goes on – but the desolation of the past is unforgettable.