Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer

Years ago, I read and fell in love with Julie Orringer's short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater. When I read that she had finally written and published a novel I checked it out of the library as soon as I could. I was not disappointed.

The Invisible Bridge tells the story of Andras Levi, a young Hungarian man who first goes to Paris to study architecture and later suffers through the tragedies and horrors of the Holocaust. This is a large and ambitious novel - it spans over eleven years of Andras' life and the lives of those closest to him, while carrying complex subplots and historical threads through from the beginning to the end. I don't want to say too much about the plot because I don't want to give anything away, so instead I'll focus this review on structure and style.

I loved - loved! - the sheer depth of this novel. The details we get of Andras' life, the way we experience the world through him, the time Orringer spends building his world and then the pain of watching hatred and bigotry tear it down - it's a true work of art. The first half of The Invisible Bridge takes place in Paris, where Andras is busy attending school, falling in love, and becoming a man. The second half takes place after the World War II has started and Andras is forced to return to Hungary. I've read a number of books about the Holocaust (The Diary of Anne Frank was one of my favorite books growing up) but this is the first story I've read that takes place outside a concentration camp, instead focusing on the lesser known but equally horrifying labor camps that many Jews were forced to serve - and die - within. The plot of this novel is loosely based on the experiences of Orringer's grandparents, which brings another layer of terror to the story.

One thing I very much admired about the structure of this story is the way it really feels like a single person's life. Andras has friends, professors, people who are very important to him in the beginning of the book - some of these people are never seen or heard from again, which is strange for a story but true to life, especially life during World War II.

Since I finished this novel and begged everyone I know to read it, I've read a few reviews online - some of which were flattering, others which were less so. It seems most reviewers knock Orringer for her use of "purple prose" which - I learned from Wikipedia - is "a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so over extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose... also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader's response."

While I don't entirely disagree with these accusations - Orringer does have a habit of describing things in great detail, of pulling at the heart's strings incessantly - this didn't especially bother me or distract me. When I picked up The Invisible Bridge, I was hoping for a novel that would pull me into another world, make me feel something raw and real, and leave me a better person than I was when I started. High standards for a work of fiction, but Orringer did not disappoint. And really - you can't be too sentimental when it comes to the Holocaust. It's a subject that demands a certain level of anguish.

I realize, rereading this post, that I use a lot of words like "anguish," "horror," and "tragedy." While this novel contains all of those things, I don't want you to think it's a total downer. There are many beautiful moments in Andras life, true happiness and joy despite the terrible situations of his time. And Andras Levi, the character, is a person who never loses hope or his love for the world around him. In the end, this is a book about the human spirit, which even something as terrible as the Holocaust can never crush completely.

Read it, and then let me know what you thought.