The Invisible Bridge is historical fiction at its best. Take an eventful moment; invent some appealing characters; figure out how to describe what happens to them and what you think of it. Then tell the story in a compelling way. That’s all the writer of an historical novel has to do, and it’s actually an immense job. But Julie Orringer is more than equal to the task.
The tale begins slowly, with young Andras Lévi at the opera in Budapest with his brother Tibor, the night before he departs for architecture school in Paris. A well-dressed woman recognizes him and summons him to visit her house the next day, before he gets on his train to France. She entrusts him with a box for her nephew Joszef and a mysterious letter to mail secretly in Paris. Thus Orringer economically sets up most of the fundamental relationships in the novel, while also whetting the reader’s curiosity: who will receive the letter? Why the secrecy?
Andras goes off and begins learning how to be an architect, but it’s 1937. Antisemitism is already on the rise and the politics of Central Europe promise nothing good. But life goes on, you know? People eat meals, laugh, write letters, fall in love, get beat up, lose their jobs. Andras grows up. That’s what you can do in a 700-page book: you can let your characters change, mature, make mistakes, redeem them. You can keep all kinds of themes in the air as Orringer does: not for nothing is Andras an architect. He builds things, and he looks at buildings analytically, and Orringer uses buildings both as setting and as metaphor. When Andras arrives in Paris, modernist architects are building utopian structures, for instance, full of hope in the materials and purposes of the twentieth century. When he returns to Budapest after the war, all of the bridges across the Danube have been destroyed.
There’s a love story, of course, and because the novel is set in wartime you can be sure there are wrenching separations, longing, rapturous reunions. But because Orringer is a subtle writer, there are also tensions and arguments. I’m not generally a fan of the sweeping-love-story trope but I believed in Andras and Klara, partly because the relationship develops from “callow youth falls for older woman” to “marriage against the odds” and further. And this isn’t the only important relationship in the book: Andras has two brothers and a cadre of friends from his Parisian architectural school. Klara has a ne’er-do-well cousin, a prickly daughter, a longtime former lover and all of these people, like everyone in Europe, are swept up in the war.
And the war stuff is very good. Its impact is at first administrative: a visa in Paris that won’t get renewed because, oops, Andras is Jewish. Jobs that vanish, educations terminated, shortages, work service — because in Hungary Jews weren’t allowed to bear arms. And all along, the characters and relationships continue to develop. Orringer never spells out precisely what she means by the “invisible bridge” of the title, but many of the bridges in the novel are destroyed or rendered inaccessible. There’s a lot of unemphatic metaphor here, and I’d like to think of the titular bridge as the link between people that somehow endures. Or possibly a link between the past and the present, that Orringer has constructed out of words.