About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

#71 - The Invisible Bridge

The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

Jacket Summary: "Julie Orringer's astonishing first novel, eagerly awaited since the publication of her heralded best-selling short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, is a grand love story set against the backdrop of Budapest and Paris, an epic tale of three brothers whose lives are ravaged by war, and the chronicle of one family's struggle against the forces that threaten to annihilate it.

"Paris, 1936. Andras Levi, a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student, arrives from Budapest with a scholarship, a single suitcase, and a mysterious letter he has promised to deliver to C. Morgenstern on the rue de Sevigne. As he falls into a complicated relationship with the letter's recipient, he becomes privy to a secret history that will alter the course of his own life. Meanwhile, as his elder brother takes up medical studies in Modena and their younger brother leaves school for the stage, Europe's unfolding tragedy sends each of their lives into terrifying uncertainty. At the end of Andras's second summer in Paris, all of Europe erupts in a cataclysm of war.

"From the small Hungarian town of Konyar to the grand opera houses of Budapest and Paris, from the lonely chill of Andras's room on the rue des Ecoles to the deep and enduring connection he discovers on the rue de Sevigne, from the despair of Carpathian winter to an unimaginable life in forced labor camps and beyond, The Invisible Bridge tells the story of a love tested by disaster, of brothers whose bonds cannot be broken, of a family shattered and remade in history's darkest hour, and of the dangerous power of art in a time of war."

Opening Line: "Later he would tell her that their story began at the Royal Hungarian Opera House, the night before he left for Paris on the Western Europe Express."

My Take: Just when I thought I'd been there and done that where World War II novels were concerned, along comes a brace of books to remind me that when an event is truly cataclysmic in nature, the stories woven into its fabric are nearly infinite. The former, you may recall, was A Fierce Radiance. Now comes The Invisible Bridge, which ... well, not since Gone to Soldiers has a novel made both the familiar and the bleak facets of WWII seem newly personal and compelling.

In fact, one theme that makes The Invisible Bridge so intriguing is one it shares with Marge Piercy's GtS: the effects of an unsurpassed global drama writ small on one young person's emerging adult identity. (Yeah, I guess I'll always be a student of psychology first and history second; sue me.) Here, the story opens with Andras embarking on a journey that's in many respects timeless: leaving his home and family to attend university. At the same time, his course is influenced by where and when he lives; barred by Jewish quotas from attending college in Hungary, he accepts a scholarship to a Parisian school of architecture. There, the very factors that at first seem most damning -- his poverty, his Judaism, and his scant knowledge of French -- shape his experience in unexpected ways. When his scholarship falls through, he secures a job at a theater run by Novak, a man he'd met on the train from Budapest to Paris. On campus, he quickly bonds with three other Jewish students: radical, hot-tempered Rosen; easygoing Casanova type Ben-Yakov; and talented, openly gay Polaner. And he finds a mentor in Vago, a Hungarian Catholic professor who tutors him in French and encourages his architectural studies.

Most important, perhaps, is a chance meeting in Budapest on the eve of his departure with a wealthy matron, Mrs. Hasz. She asks him to carry a package to her own son, Joszef, who is also studying in Paris; when he comes to her house to collect it, her mother-in-law gives him a mysterious letter addressed to a C. Morgenstern, which she asks him to post once he's safely in France. Later, when a colleague at the theater encourages him to call on a Hungarian Jewish family of her acquaintances, he recognizes Morgenstern's address, and is too curious not to comply. The hope is that Andras will court the teenaged Elisabet, but it's quickly made clear that this ain't gonna happen; Elisabet, born and raised in Paris, has no use for any reminders of her Hungarian roots, and will scarcely speak to him. He is, however, oddly drawn to her mother Claire, a 31-year-old ballet teacher who he instantly recognizes as the daughter of the elder Mrs. Hasz.

In another time and place, this beginning might lead all too predictably to a number of familiar places: a Jane-Austen-meets-Eastern-Europe comedy of manners, an unconventional-flirting-with-Gothic romance, a poor-country-kid-comes-of-age-and-makes-good-in-the-big-city tale, or [insert-your-own-overuse-of-hyphens-here]. Therein lies the suspense in Part I; we know, even if Andras and his comrades don't, that war will indeed come to both France and Hungary, and that before they can complete their studies, Paris will become a very different place.

I'll be a bit vague about what happens when it does, because much of this story's intricate appeal lies in watching it unfold without knowing exactly what comes next. Aided by Vago's connections, Andras' beloved elder brother Tibor wins a scholarship to study medicine in Italy, and takes a train ride to Paris that will change his life. Back in Hungary, younger brother Matyas, furious at being left singly responsible for their parents, gives up his own studies to become an entertainer. Slowly, the secrets behind Claire's (nee Klara's) exile from Hungary and the identity of Elisabet's late father are revealed. While anti-Semitism spreads insidiously throughout Europe, and the Hungarian government walks a fine line between maintaining its autonomy and keeping its German allies happy, Andras finds himself detained in Budapest at a most inconvenient time -- eventually realizing, as news of France's fall trickles in, that not only his university but his Paris are lost forever. As Hungary is drawn deeper into the escalating war, he is called up repeatedly for service in the munkaszolgálat, where he illustrates underground newspapers to maintain his sanity, waits desperately for news of his family, and wavers between a fragile hope that Hungary's Jews will continue to be spared and a growing dread that they too will perish, either in concentration camps or in graves they dig themselves.

As usual, when I've wrapped up the plot summary and try to move on to explaining why I enjoyed the book, I find myself at a loss. An engaging novel is such an holistic experience that it's hard to deconstruct; it doesn't help that as I said earlier, I'm (or was) a student of psychology, not literary criticism. I've said before that I'm always drawn to books that offer a different take on a familiar story, and to some extent, that's the case here. I've read plenty of WWII books, but most are set either in the concentration camps (which makes for an intense, dramatic story, but also a somewhat familiar one) or on the U.S. home front (less intense, but still familiar in a different way). The Invisible Bridge is neither; it takes place primarily in prewar Paris and then wartime Hungary, which has the effect of shifting the kaleidoscope a quarter-turn or so.

I also enjoy coming-of-age stories, and Invisible Bridge doesn't disappoint on that score, either. Andras, his classmates, the dilettante artiste Joszef Hasz, and the condescending adolescent Elisabet are both recognizable and believable, as are the ways in which they change and grow throughout the book.
If you've ever set foot on a college campus, you'll remember a Jozsef or 2 of your own acquaintance, and will find yourself nodding at the recurring tension between angry young man Rosen's insistence on fighting for his rights, Ben-Yakov's "boys just wanna have fun" carelessness, and Polaner's quiet determination to keep his head down and get his degree. (You'll probably also be familiar with Polaner's paradox: Pretty much everyone at school knows he's gay, but when an occasional lover and his anti-Semitic French nationalist pals beat him within an inch of his life, he resists the hospital and forbids his friends from informing his parents lest they find out.) And the complex blend of love and obligation Andras, Tibor, and Matyas share (right down to the inevitable two-on-one triangle) will be familiar to anyone who has siblings.

I'm always compelled to find some fault with what I read; here, it's certain aspects of the Morgenstern ladies that come up short. Again, I don't want to give too much away, but at some point, the conflicts and complications that plague Andras and Klara's relationship at the start seem to vanish without a trace. Likewise, Klara's relationship with Elisabet is transformed from one of dancing-on-eggshells teenage rebellion to one of mature, mutual respect as suddenly as if someone had flipped a switch. In my own experience as daughter, mother, wife, and lifelong friend, real world relationships seldom work like this. Both changes seem a bit too convenient, as if Orringer decided it was time to tie up the interpersonal storylines and focus on the war.

This minor quibble aside, though, The Invisible Bridge is a keeper. I'll recommend it to friends (hint, hint), and may even put it on my "want to own" list for this weekend's book sale. (Watch for changes to Hazel's Bookshelf soon!)

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