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Invisible Bridge (Orringer)

The Invisible Bridge 
Julie Orringer, 2010
Knopf Doubleday
624 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781400041169


Summary
Julie Orringer’s astonishing first novel, eagerly awaited since the publication of her heralded best-selling short-story collection, How to Breathe Underwater (“fiercely beautiful”—the New York Times), 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, 1937. 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.

Expertly crafted, magnificently written, emotionally haunting, and impossible to put down, The Invisible Bridge resoundingly confirms Julie Orringer’s place as one of today’s most vital and commanding young literary talents. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—June 12, 1973
Where—Miami, Florida, USA
Education—B.A., Cornell University; M.F.A., University of
  Iowa; Stegner Fellowship, Stanford University
Awards—Ploughshares Cohen Award for the short story
  "Pilgrims"
Currently—lives in San Francisco, California


Julie Orringer is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and Cornell University, and was a Stegner Fellow in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. Her stories have appeared in the Paris Review, Yale Review, Ploughshares, Pushcart Prize Anthology, and Zoetrope: All-Story. She lives in San Francisco. (From the publisher.)

Extras
From a 2004 Barnes & Noble interview:

• My first exposure to writing came when I was three years old, when my father sat down with me and made me a little book out of tiny pieces of paper he'd stapled together. He was the one who taught me that a book was not just something you could read, but something you could create. Soon I began composing the stories with him. Some of our early titles were "The Bowling Party," "The Very Tiny Owl," "The New Baby," and "The Time We Went to Hollywood."

• Here are some of the jobs I had in San Francisco after I first moved here when I was 23: fertility clinic receptionist, fabric warehouse assistant, fax/copy clerk at the Park 55 hotel, office concierge at a creative consulting firm, consultant at same creative consulting firm, part-time calligrapher. Jobs I applied for in San Francisco but didn't get: greeting card writer, web site content writer, waiter, elementary school teacher, book salesperson.

• I play the violin and love to ski.

When asked what book most influenced her life or career as a writer, her is what she said:

It's difficult to choose one book that most influenced my life as a writer, but if I had to choose, I might say it was Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. When I was a high school student, I found a copy in a used bookstore in Ann Arbor. It was a 1943 Random House edition with gorgeous woodcuts by Fritz Eichenberg — Jane looked pale and determined in her plain governess' clothing; Mr. Rochester was dark-eyed, frightening, on a rearing horse. It was Jane's persistence and independence that I found exciting; I'd always loved stories about young women who struggled on through difficult circumstances, and Bronte's story seemed the archetypal example of the form. (Author interview from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews 
[T]he horrors of war never become Ms. Orringer's primary subject. She devotes far more attention to conveying the intricacies of Jewish life and describing the ways in which they were cherished and preserved. This is a book in which one family's cooking rituals can take on an almost totemic importance.... Andras's most enduring wish…is to create a kind of family memorial. And Ms. Orringer, writing with both granddaughterly reverence and commanding authority, has done it for him.
Janet Maslin - New York Times


We all know what happened in the Holocaust, even if few among us can ever understand it, and the close of the novel demonstrates the refreshing trust Orringer has in her audience. The Invisible Bridge provides another literary glimpse of the day-to-day horrors of that time, and also reminds us of the potential contributors to the postwar world—the architects and painters, the professionals and tradesmen—who were lost from Mitteleuropa…The strength of The Invisible Bridge lies in Orringer's ability to make us care so deeply about the people of her all-too-real fictional world. For the time it takes to read this fine novel, and for a long time afterward, it becomes our world too.
Andrew Ervin - New York Times Book Review


Orringer uses the symbolism of invisible bridges in many inventive ways, re-engineering traditional dimensions of time and space, calibrating the immensity of world-war deaths against the specifics of one family's life, and building emotional connections between parents and children, husbands and wives, the preserved and the obliterated…She maintains a fine balance between the novel's intimate moments…and its panoramic set-pieces. Even those monumental scenes manage to display a tactful humility: This is a story, they keep reminding us, and it's not bringing anybody back. With its moving acknowledgment of the gap between what's been lost and what can be imagined, this remarkably accomplished first novel is itself, in the continuing stream of Holocaust literature, an invisible bridge.
Donna Rifkind - Washington Post


Orringer's stunning first novel far exceeds the expectations generated by her much-lauded debut collection, How to Breath Underwater. In this WWII saga, Orringer illuminates the life of Andras Levi, a Hungarian Jew of meager means whose world is upended by a scholarship to the Ecole Speciale d'Architecture in Paris. There, he makes an unlikely Hasz), a woman nine years his senior whose past links her to a wealthy Hungarian family familiar to Andras. Against the backdrop of grueling school assignments, exhausting work at a theater, budding romance, and the developing kinship between Andras and his fellow Jewish students, Orringer ingeniously depicts the insidious reach of the growing tide of anti-Semitism that eventually lands him back in Hungary. Once there, Orringer sheds light on how Hungary treated its Jewish citizens—first, sending them into hard labor, though not without a modicum of common decency—but as the country's alliance with Germany strengthens, the situation for Jews becomes increasingly dire. Throughout the hardships and injustices, Andras's love for Claire acts as a beacon through the unimaginable devastation and the dark hours of hunger, thirst, and deprivation. Orringer's triumphant novel is as much a lucid reminder of a time not so far away as it is a luminous story about the redemptive power of love.
Publishers Weekly


In September 1937, Andras Levi leaves Budapest for Paris, where he will study at the Ecole Speciale on a scholarship. Before he leaves, he encounters Elza Hasz, who asks him to carry a letter to Paris addressed to C. Morgenstern. Andras posts the letter and begins his studies, getting help from a Hungarian professor, a desperately needed job from a theater director he met on the train, and an introduction to some friends from an actress at the theater. The daughter is sullen and disinterested, but the mother turns out to be Claire Morgenstern, recipient of the mysterious letter, and it is with Claire that Andras launches a tumultuous affair. Soon, a painful secret about Claire's past emerges—and then war comes to sweep everything aside. Verdict: With historic detail, a complex cast of characters, and much coincidental crossing, this book has a big, sagalike feel. Unfortunately, it also has a paint-by-the-numbers feel, as if the author were working too hard to get through every point of the story she's envisioned. The result is some plain writing, not the luminous moments we remember from her story collection, How To Breathe Underwater. Nevertheless, this should appeal to those who like big reads with historic significance. —Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal


A long, richly detailed debut novel from prizewinning short-story writer Orringer (How to Breathe Underwater, 2003), unfolding from a little-explored area of the Holocaust. The brothers Andras and Tibor Levi, Hungarian Jews, are models of aspiration. As the narrative opens, Andras is bound for Paris to study architecture, Tibor for Italy to study medicine. The year is 1937, far enough along in the proceedings that neither should be surprised to learn that bad things are about to happen; yet both are so resolutely set on their paths that, it seems, the outside world does not always figure. Andras is helped along by a few fellow Jews at the Parisian academy, as well as a seemingly sympathetic artist who inspires him to contemplate, at 22, converting to "become a Christian, and not just a Christian-a Roman Catholic, the Christians who'd imagined houses of God like Notre-Dame, like the Saint-Chapelle, like the Matyas Templom or the Basilica of Szent Istvan in Budapest." This will not be the first time Andras gives free play to lofty-mindedness, but the mood gives way to earthlier concerns when he meets a woman who has an engagingly complex past-and whose story will travel alongside Andras's through the labor-camp system and, eventually, the Nazi death machine. Tibor's story is a quieter version of Andras's; indeed, the reader sometimes wonders whether Orringer has forgotten about him, though only for a time. The author works large themes of family, loyalty and faith across a huge sweep of geography and history. Her settings are the smart avenues of world capitals, snowy dirt tracks on the road to Stalingrad, even the woods of upstate New York. Her story develops without sentimentality or mawkishness, though it is full of grand emotions. Though the events of the time, especially in Hungary, are now the stuff of history books and increasingly fewer firsthand memories, Orringer writes without anachronism, and convincingly. Written with the big-picture view of Doctor Zhivago or Winds of War.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. What does the opening chapter establish about the cultural and social milieu of prewar Budapest? What do Andras’s reactions to Hasz household reveal about the status of Jews within the larger society? How do the differences between the Hasz and Levi families affect their assumptions and behavior during the war? Which scenes and characters most clearly demonstrate the tensions within the Jewish community?

2. Why do Andras and his friends at the Ecole Speciale tolerate the undercurrent of anti-Semitism at the school even after the verbal attack on Eli Polaner (pp. 39–40) and the spate of vandalism against Jewish students (p. 94)? To what extent are their reactions shaped by their nationalities, political beliefs, or personal histories? Why does Andras agree to infiltrate the meeting of Le Grand Occident (pp. 97–102)? Is his belief that “[the police] wouldn’t deport me... Not for serving the ideals of France” (p. 102), as well as the reactions of Professor Vago and Andras’s father to the German invasion of Czechoslovakia (p. 266) naïve, or do they represent widespread opinions and assumptions?

3. Andras and Klara’s love blossoms against the background of uncertainties and fear. Is Klara’s initial lack of openness about her background justified by her situation? Why does she eventually begin an affair with Andras? Are they equally responsible for the arguments, break-ups, and reconciliations that characterize their courtship? Do Klara’s revelations (pp. 214–34) change your opinion of her and the way she has behaved?

4. Despite the grim circumstances, Andras and Mendel produce satirical newspapers in the labor camps. What do the excerpts from "The Snow Goose" (p. 331), The Biting Fly (pp. 360–61), and The Crooked Rail (p. 437) show about the strategies that helped laborers preserve their humanity and their sanity? What other survival techniques do Andras and his fellow laborers develop?

5. In Budapest, the Levi and Hasz families sustain themselves with small pleasures, daily tasks at home and, in the case of the men, working at the few jobs still available to Jews (pp. 352–55, pp. 366–77, pp. 405–10). Are they driven by practical or emotional needs, or both? Does the attempt to maintain ordinary life represent hope and courage, or a tragic failure to recognize the ever-encroaching danger? What impact do the deprivations and degradations imposed by the Germans have on the relationship between the families? Which characters are the least able or willing to accept the threats to their homeland and their culture?

6. What details in the descriptions of Banhida (pp. 356–63, pp. 392–99), Turka (pp. 486–503), and the transport trains (pp. 558–66) most chillingly capture the cruelty perpetrated by the Nazis? In addition to physical abuse and deprivation, what are the psychological effects of the camps’ rules and the laws imposed on civilian populations?

7. General Marton in Banhida (pp. 399–402), Captain Erdo, and the famous General Vilmos Nagy in Turka all display kindness and compassion. Miklós Klein engages in the tremendously dangerous work of arranging emigrations for fellow Jews (pp. 422–23). What motivates each of them to act as they do?  What political ideals and moral principles lie at the heart Nagy’s stirring speech to the officers-in-training (pp. 506–7)? (Because of his refusal to support official anti-Semitic policies, Nagy was eventually forced to resign from the Hungarian army; in 1965, he was the first Hungarian named as a Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Institute.)

8. Why does Klara refuse to leave Budapest and go to Palestine (p. 510)? Is her decision the result of her own set of circumstances, or does it reflect the attitudes of other Jews in Hungary and other countries under Nazi control?

9. “He could no sooner cease being Jewish than he could cease being a brother to his brothers, a son to his father and mother” (p. 46). Discuss the value and importance of Jewish beliefs and traditions to Andras and other Jews, considering such passages as Andras’s feelings in the above quotation and his thoughts on the High Holidays (pp. 201­–3); the weddings of Ben Yakov and Ilana (pp. 255–56) and of Andras and Klara (p. 317); the family seder in wartime Budapest (pp. 352–55); and the prayers and small rituals conducted in work camps.

10. The narrative tracks the political and military upheavals engulfing Europe as they occur. What do these intermittent reports demonstrate about the failure of both governments and ordinary people to grasp the true objectives of the Nazi regime? How does the author create and sustain a sense of suspense and portending disaster, even for readers familiar with the ultimate course of the war?

11. Throughout the book there are descriptions of Andras’s studies, including information about his lessons and the models he creates and detailed observations of architectural masterpieces in Paris. What perspective does the argument between Pingsson and Le Corbusier offer on the role of the architect in society (pp. 273–74)? Whose point of view do you share? What aspects of architecture as a discipline make it particularly appropriate to the themes explored in the novel? What is the relevance of Andras’s work as a set designer within this context?

12. Andras’s encounters with Mrs. Hász (p. 6) and with Zoltan Novak (pp. 19–20) are the first of many coincidences that determine the future paths of various characters. What other events in the novel are the result of chance or luck? How do the twists and turns of fortune help to create a sense of the extraordinary time in which the novel is set?

13. Does choice also play a significant role in the characters’ lives? What do their decisions (for example, Klara’s voluntary return to Budapest; Gyorgy’s payments to the Hungarian authorities; and even Joszef’s attack on Andras and Mendel (p. 492)) demonstrate about the importance of retaining a sense of independence and control in the midst of chaos?

14. The Holocaust and other murderous confrontations between ethnic groups can challenge the belief in God. “(Andras) believed in God, yes, the God of his fathers, the one to whom he’d prayed...but that God, the One, was not One who intervened in the way the needed someone to intervene just then. He had designed the cosmos and thrown its doors open to man, and man had moved in.... The world was their place now” (p. 432). What is your reaction to Andras’s point of view? Have you read or heard explanations of why terrible events come to pass that more closely reflect your personal beliefs?

15. What did you know about Hungary’s role in World War II before reading The Invisible Bridge? Did the book present information about the United States and its Allies that surprised you? Did it affect your views on Zionism and the Jewish emigration to Palestine?  Did it deepen your understanding of the causes and the course of the war?  What does the epilogue convey about the postwar period and the links among past, present, and future?

16. “In the end, what astonished him the most was not the vastness of it all—that was impossible to take in, the hundreds of thousands dead from Hungary alone, and the millions from all over Europe—but the excruciating smallness, the pinpoint of which every life was balanced” (p. 558). Does The Invisible Bridge succeed in capturing both the “vastness of it all” and the “excruciating smallness” of war and its impact on individual lives?

17. Why has Orringer chosen “Any Case” by the Nobel Prize–winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborkska as the coda to her novel? What does it express about individuals caught in the flow of history and the forces that determine their fates?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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