What a refreshing change Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge is from the contemporary fiction I've been reading recently. Instead of a book about self-absorbed whiny people where hardly anything happens (Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger), this book is a sprawling saga of World War II in Hungary, with a cast of thousands, a huge variety of locations, war, deprivation, joy, anxiety, relief, love, hate, birth, death, and not a shred of self-pity. I loved it!
I didn't know much about Hungary in the war. A lot of the information was new to me, and I suspect it will be new to most readers. It's the story of Andras Levi, a Hungarian architecture student, and it begins in the late 1930s as he moves to Paris to take up a scholarship place at architecture school. It follows Andras, his brothers, his parents, his eventual wife, her family, and their children throughout the war, from Paris, back to Budapest, through stints in the Hungarian Labor Service, throughout the siege of Budapest, to the aftermath of the war.
This book follows in the tradition of the great war novels that are also great family sagas. I'm thinking of Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, and also of Herman Wouk's The Winds of War and War and Remembrance>. Like Wouk and Mitchell, Orringer skillfully integrates fact and fiction, including both real and fictional characters.
Meticulously researched, the book is as much about epic battles as it is about how people hang on to their humanity during the most trying situations imaginable. Also like those three books I mention, The Invisible Bridge is not high literary art; it's got its share of purple prose and overwrought descriptions. Yet I think it too will endure as a classic.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.