Romance, the Holocaust collide in 'Invisible Bridge'

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THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE, by Julie Orringer. Alfred A. Knopf, 602 pp., $26.95.

Most authors, from Marcel Proust to Judith Krantz, explore the same territory - or even write the same book - over and over, and in the best-case scenario their readers never tire of it. So, having fallen in love with Julie Orringer's "How to Breathe Underwater," a 2003 collection of sharply written, morally complicated coming-of-age stories, I expected her second book to be along the same lines. I waited for it eagerly.

Well, I had to wait seven years, and the novel that she produced in the interim defeated my expectations to the degree that I was stunned, then awed. Out with the bad baby-sitters of California (a favorite species from the first book) and in with a Tolstoy-esque novel of the Holocaust, one that tracks the passage of quotidian life and the flutter of the human heart against the implacable roil of history. "The Invisible Bridge" brings the pre- and early-World War II period to life in a way I can only compare to "Suite Francaise," which was actually written at that time and left incomplete when its author, Irène Némirovsky, was carted off by the Nazis. Meanwhile, the love story that unfolds in Orringer's pages is as romantic as "Doctor Zhivago," and the seamless, edifying integration of truckloads of historical and topical research (architecture, ballet, midcentury Paris neighborhoods) brings to mind Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

So, yeah, I liked it.

Orringer's tale begins at the Royal Hungarian Opera House in Budapest in 1937. Brothers Andras and Tibor Lévi are spending a last night together watching "Tosca" from the cheap seats before Andras leaves for France to study architecture at the École Spéciale d'Architecture. Soon after, Tibor will be off to Italy for medical school. At the end of the evening, a woman in a sable coat and diamond necklace excitedly approaches Andras in the lobby. "It was you at the bank the other day, wasn't it?" she says. "You were the one with the envelope of francs." He remembers bumping into her, spilling his freshly exchanged currency on the floor.

"You must do me a great favor," she continues. "My son is studying at the Beaux-Arts and I'd like you to take a package for him. Would it be a terrible inconvenience?"

Not an inconvenience, but a life-changing errand, one that will shape the future of both brothers and many other people. Eventually, this errand, and other small accidents of destiny, will lead both brothers to the women they love - Andras' Klara, nine years older than he, a beautiful ballet teacher whose past contains a secret that explains why a 31-year-old woman has a 16-year-old daughter; and Tibor's Ilana, an Italian Jew who initially ran away from her parents' Orthodox home to marry one of Andras' school buddies. But these delightful fictions will collide with brutal historic reality: the twin disasters of anti-Semitism and world war.

As in the best historical novels, "The Invisible Bridge" thoroughly entwines its invented and real elements. For example, in Part Two of the book, "Broken Glass," Orringer leads up to the news of Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, with a growing sense of unease and difficulty. First, the theater where Andras works backstage is peremptorily closed because of money troubles. Then, one of his friends at the École is beaten nearly to death. After an unhappy vacation in Nice, Andras and Klara are estranged.

Finally, in the last chapter of the section, Andras is at school when news arrives of a young man who has shot an embassy official to avenge the deportation of Jews from Germany, and the rioting and punishment that has ensued. The teacher comes in, turns off the radio and starts the critique. Andras turns to his drawing, which has slipped one of its pins. "He looked at it and thought, That's right. At that moment, everything seemed to hang at angle by a single pin: not just houses, but whole cities, countries, peoples."

Many times in my life I've felt that I could take in no more information about the Holocaust. But "The Invisible Bridge" sneaked under my radar, and I'm glad it did. Yes, again the injustice, the cruelty, the deaths, the unthinkable horror - but instead of reducing everything to that horror, "The Invisible Bridge" knits the horror back into the world.

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