No one encountering The Invisible Bridge would ever suspect Julie Orringer of being a short-story writer. The debut novel of the “How to Breathe Underwater” author clocks in at a whopping 624 pages, and there’s nothing minimalist about either its breadth or goals.
The future is looking up for Andras Lévi. Unable to study architecture in Hungary because he is Jewish, he is instead on his way to Paris, enrolled at the École Spéciale on a scholarship. In his pocket is a letter addressed to “Morgenstern,” given to him to mail by a well-to-do Jewish family; on the train, a businessman buys him a pretzel. (This is the kind of book where even such seemingly minor contact will come to have ramifications later.)
Once in Paris, not only does he become the protégé of a kind instructor who teaches him French and secures entrance to medical school for his older brother, but Le Corbusier admires his work.
Unfortunately for Andras, the year is 1937, and readers are aware his good fortune is all too temporary. The first sign of things to come is when his scholarship is summarily canceled. A professor is cajoled into putting up half the money, and Andras works tirelessly at a theater for the rest, first as a gopher, then as a set designer.
This being Paris, he also falls in love. Invited to dinner at the home of a strong-minded teenaged girl, Andras is instead smitten with her mother, a ballet instructor in her early 30s. Claire Morgenstern, it turns out, is the recipient of the mysterious letter and is really Hungarian Klara Hász. She is living in exile in France and, for reasons Orringer gradually reveals, can’t risk returning to Budapest without endangering herself and her family.
Andras’s gentle brother Tibor, meanwhile, has his own love story, which plays out quietly in the background, while at home, their youngest brother Mátyás rants at being left behind and takes up tap-dancing.
Klara’s and Andras’s relationship is the keystone of “The Invisible Bridge,” and Orringer writes them a grand passion – complete with garret confrontations, courtship on ice, and a holiday in the South of France.
By the time Andras learns that his student visa – along with those of all other Hungarian Jews – has been revoked and he must return to Budapest to resolve the “clerical issue,” the question is whether that love has grown solid enough to sustain them both through years of privations and horror.
As World War II sweeps over Europe, Orringer’s focus always remains solidly on her characters, who are the novel’s greatest strength.
Andras and his brothers are rounded up for forced labor on scant rations and abuse meted out according to the whims of various commanders. But Hungary was less eager to embrace death camps than the Third Reich would have preferred and tried to protect its Jews from widespread slaughter – at least until a coup in 1944.
At first, the survival of Klara, Andras, and their families seems a likely possibility. But their fates get compressed in narrowing concentric rings as the war continues.
Orringer has said in interviews that the novel was inspired by conversations she had with her grandfather, who studied architecture in France before being conscripted into the Hungarian labor services.
With the action sweeping from Paris to Budapest to the Ukraine, “The Invisible Bridge” is an unabashedly big, wartime epic à la “Dr. Zhivago,” with “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” as a theme song instead of a balalaika ballad. And when it comes to the memory of love, you can’t do better than Gershwin.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.