In her first novel, following the well-regarded 2003 story collection How To Breathe Underwater, Julie Orringer executes a grand jeté worthy of her ballerina heroine, spanning the precarious gap between story-writer and novelist that has tripped up countless predecessors. Seven years in the making, The Invisible Bridge imagines World War II from the perspective of two Hungarians deeply in love, though their mismatched union would have met with adversity in even the most peaceful, uncomplicated era. This is a big, old-fashioned love story set against the backdrop of war—the type Tolstoy might have scratched out with a gnawed pencil—but it’s also a modern riff on architecture, existentialism, and how people persist in making and remaking their lives when “the world has lost its mind.”
As a young architecture student studying in Paris at the École Spéciale, Andras Levi crosses paths with ballet instructor Clare Morgenstern (née Klara Hasz), whose name-change turns out to be the least of her secrets. But as evidence of anti-Semitism creeps into Paris and the drumbeats through Europe grow louder, any social obstacles to their union are dwarfed by the larger demands of survival. The romantic exploits in Paris that comprise the novel’s first half are breathy and gilded, yet they never spill over completely into melodrama. The war-ravaged second part is marked with researched history and small, heartbreaking images, like Andras’ beloved brother Tibor walking 30 kilometers while cradling a handful of strawberry jam to feed his starving sibling.
Artists have examined this particular war countless times, in countless ways, but the small miracles that abound in Orringer’s novel make a strong argument that literature is the best way to get at the core of something in absentia, even better than a newsreel or a cold hard fact. In a rare moment of respite, as Andras lies beside Klara at night, he dreams again of buildings, “one in a long line of imaginary houses he had built since they had been together… those ghostly blueprints of a life they had not yet lived and might never live.” In this book are souls, living people made of words. With The Invisible Bridge, Orringer has built a large novel in the grand old style, and out of that rubble made something new and beautiful.