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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"The Invisible Bridge" by Julie Orringer (reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


Official Julie Orringer Website
Order 'The Invisible Bridge" HERE
Read an Excerpt from The Invisible Bridge from the NY Times

INTRODUCTION: As I mentioned in a recent review, sometimes books come out of nowhere, hijack my reading schedule and it takes a while until I can un-weave the magical spell they had exerted on me and leave their universe, usually needing at least one complete reread as well as an immediate review.

The novelistic debut of the author, The Invisible Bridge attracted my attention by its fascinating cover in a Borders bookstore several days ago and the blurb below made me open it; I got hooked on the first page which you can read in the extract linked above and I stayed way, way too late to finish the novel since I really needed to find out what happens with the main characters, while rereading it at leisure during the next few days.

"Paris, 1937. Andras Lévi, 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 Sévigné. As he becomes involved with the letter's recipient, his elder brother takes up medical studies in Modena, their younger brother leaves school for the stage - and Europe's unfolding tragedy sends each of their lives into terrifying uncertainty. From the Hungarian village of Konyár to the grand opera houses of Budapest and Paris, from the lonely chill of Andras's garret to the enduring passion he discovers on the rue de Sévigné, from the despair of a Carpathian winter to an unimaginable life in forced labor camps and beyond, The Invisible Bridge tells the unforgettable story of brothers bound by history and love, of a marriage tested by disaster, of a Jewish family's struggle against annihilation, and of the dangerous power of art in a time of war."

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: The Invisible Bridge stands at about 600 pages divided into five parts and 42 named chapters with an epilogue some decades later. The novel spans the turbulent years from 1937 to 1945 with action mostly in Paris, Budapest and various labor camps on or behind the Eastern front lines where Hungarian Jewish males were conscripted as forced laborers for the army instead of as soldiers, since they were considered unreliable to be given weapons and training to use them.

The novel follows the intertwined destinies of the lower-middle class Levy family from a village near Debrecen, of whom middle brother and architect-to-be, Andras is the main hero, though older brother Tibor and younger Matyas play important roles too and the rich Hasz family of Budapest, of whom early forties Gyorgy is a Bank President and his son Jozsef, a painter-to-be is studying - and partying, with more of the latter than the former of course - in Paris.

There is also mysterious early thirties Klara - Claire - Morgenstern who is a ballet teacher in Paris with a 16 year old strong willed daughter Elisabet, to whom Gyorgy's mother, the matriarch of the Hasz charges the twenty two year old Andras to secretly deliver a letter when he gets to Paris for his studies, in addition to carrying a huge package with goodies for Jozsef.

Romantic, epic, dark even painfully so at times, The Invisible Bridge is historical fiction of the highest caliber.

ANALYSIS: "The Invisible Bridge" succeeds so well because of three aspects:

1: The characters: Andras and Klara first and foremost are such extraordinary characters, the young idealistic student who cannot help himself but fall in love with the 31 year old woman with a 16 year old girl and a dark past we get hints about and who somehow managed to make a reasonably successful life for herself and Elisabet despite all; also Tibor, Andras' friends, the closet gay Polaner and the handsome Ben Yakov, the wastrel but good natured Joszef, theater manager Zoltan Novak who is Andras' mentor and first employer and the rest of the Hasz and Levi families are all memorable and distinctive characters and you want them to succeed and later to survive, though of course the odds were what they were, so do not get overtly fond of anyone...

2: The writing style which is spellbinding; the book is a page turner end to end and it manages to combine the first half cautious optimism of the main characters even in face of the clouds of war and of rising antisemitism in France and violence in Germany and other places, with the day to day struggle to survival in the face of the tightening vise of the second half. "The Invisible Bridge" does not descend into melodrama in the first half, nor does it descend into despair and darkness without a light in sight, in the second half, but it maintains a "matter of fact" attitude throughout that kept me guessing almost to the end what will be the fate of the characters.

3: The world-building: as noted at the end of the novel, "The Invisible Bridge" is based on the author's family stories and real life experiences plus a lot of research and it shows. The feel of both Paris of 1937-1939 and of Hungary from 1939-1945 is pitch perfect and the Jewish traditions are vividly expounded. "The Invisible Bridge" feels to me "right" as a book set partly in Eastern Europe in a way few books by Western authors feel and the little details like recipes, names, ways of speech contribute mightily to that feeling.

There are several moments that descend a bit into farce like the story of Ilana, the Italian Orthodox Rabbi's daughter that Tibor helps elope to Paris to secretly marry Andras' friend, the handsome ladies' man Ben Yakov - who is actually in love with Black American student Lucia - and of course Tibor falls in love with Ilana, while Ben Yakov is desperately unhappy that he cannot marry Lucia so he hopes that Ilana's beauty will 'cure him" of his "wandering eye" so to speak- all with predictable results of course, but the novel manages to surprise after that. But the lighter interludes work well as a balance to the increasing darkness that descends on the world and on our characters.

Another superb touch in the novel was how famous stories like Job's fate are weaved explicitly in the novel, first in the story of Andras' father nicknamed "Lucky Bella" in an ironic and tragic way as he lost everything in life - family, child, inheritance - by age 30 and was living in depression and despair on the community's charity until a wise rabbi convinced him to try and turn around his fortunes and then in the tragic story of one of novel's important characters, though for this one you have to read the book to find out what's what. The last meeting of Andras with the respective character in 1943 is one of the emotional highlights of the second half of the novel.

In turns, a wonderful love story, an epic historical saga in the grand traditions of yore and a dark story of destruction and survival, The Invisible Bridge (A++) is one of two awesome mainstream novels that will lead that category in my best of 2010 list.

15 comments:

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Anonymous said...

How is this book fantasy? I come to this website for reviews/interviews etc of fantasy & Sci-fi books, not generalistic fiction.

Please keep the fiction books onto the other sites and keep this one for fantasy and sci-fi.

Thanks

Liviu said...

Well reading only sff is a way to burnout for once and for another there are lots of books that share traits with sff books; last year Children's Book which beat all sff in my top of the year and the Booker winner Wolf Hall were such and this one is another - incidentally while I was convinced that this year my overall top novel will be a sff one, this one was so powerful that it may go there again

Liviu said...

One more thing regarding epic novels like this, Children's book, Wolf Hall and sff - many reviews of these books done by non-sff reviewers emphasized their "imersiveness", "physicality" in the sense of detailed description of period stuff; well in sff we have a name for that and it is worldbuilding and these 3 novels do it exquisitely, whether it is England of Henry VIII, England of 1890's or France and Hungary of 1937-1945 and to turn upside down the above criticism, maybe having reviews of such books in mostly sff blogs from a more sff perpsective so to speak, would show to people who disdain sff on principle that not all is Star wars, Star trek, Dungeon and Dragons, vampires or whatever their image of the genre is

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong i'm all for variety in reading - whilst my usual staple is fantasy/sci-fi at the moment I'm reading Shogun by Clavell, I just felt that this didn't quite fit here...

Anyway, reviews are always appreciated dont get me wrong, and yes Wolf Hall does look interesting to.

Liviu said...

It's a good point though to be honest I was surprised a little by the comment since it's like the umpteenth historical fiction novel reviewed here - mostly by me true but not only - just last week we had the Moghul one by Mihir and an interview with its author this week.

What is true is that we very rarely have reviews of non-sff taking place nowadays or in recent times, holding in the "Past and Future" spirit I like my fiction since I strongly believe that worldbuilding is one the main characteristics that unites sf, fantasy and historical fiction and one thing I love a lot when done well

As for the name of the blog, that's also a bit of a misnomer these days since I would say it's sf and YA that get priority with only selected secondary world fantasies that make maybe only 30% of the reviews at most and almost no UF; but that's part of its evolution...

Cindy said...

I really think this could come down to what one views as "fantasy".

Is fantasy only magic, secondary worlds, dragons and odd creatures?

Or is fantasy an alternate real world like Seattle, New York, or California that has modern day problems for example family life and such.

Everyone's broad definition of fantasy is going to be different.

I think the occasional mainstream book won't wreck the "fantasy/sff" aspect of the blog or anything.

Why not share a good book when it comes along?

Anonymous said...

Glad to see this one reviewed. Read it last week and found it riveting, especially the 2nd half as their situation becomes more and more desperate. Good review.

Chad Hull said...

Oh, and The Children's Book is exceptional; as is most of A.S. Byatt's fiction so I've been told.

Chad Hull said...

I just read this review and thoroughly look forward to reading the novel. Oddy enough, Mr Suciu's comments did more to entice me to read Wolf Hall than any of the praise it garnered last year.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words; regarding Wolf Hall and the Children's Book I definitely plan to check the Booker long list again when it's announced later this month and see what books there are of interest...

shaneo52 said...

Hi Liviu, You said at the end there, this is one of two awesome mainstream novels, what was the other? I know I should know this one but can't quite figure it.

Liviu said...

Up to that point it was the David Mitchell Japan opus Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet; since then i've read 3 more ultra-impressive 2010 mainstream novels (Room/Donoghue, Empire/Saylor, Distant Hours/Morton) and one older (The Notebook/Kristof) all but one reviewed (Distant Hours is Nov 9 so rv ~then)

I am also reading a novel that's part sf, part mainstream (1951 Goncourt winner, 1997 English translation) Opposing Shores by Julien Gracq that reads like a much improved City/City to some extent

shaneo52 said...

So, You thought Morton's latest was better then her first two?

Liviu said...

I would say as good as the first which also blew me away - better writing, relationships... but the general outline of twists, gothic atmosphere and escalating suspense broken by current happenings is roughly the same - and not different from other notable books like Blind Assassin.

In a way The Distant Hours is as close to sff as it gets without any supernatural elements, different world...

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