- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2010

By Julie Orringer
Knopf, $26.95, 597 pages

”The Invisible Bridge” opens with a lovely scene. On the eve of his departure for Paris, a young man is being taken to the opera for the first time by his older brother who is of the opinion that “residence in Budapest must include at least one evening of Puccini at the Operahaz.” Having moved there from the tiny village where they grew up, the two have been working dull jobs and saving money for their education, one in medicine, the other in architecture; they are full of hope and plans for the future.

At intermission, they drink black coffee and argue good-naturedly about the plot of “Tosca”; after the show, they admire the building’s grand foyer. Affectionately, they make jokes about which of them might find a girlfriend first and how long it will be before they see each other again. For the reader, this light and tender mood is darkened by a sense of foreboding. The year is 1937, and Andras and Tibor Levi are Jews.

The skill with which this ominous backdrop is woven into the characters’ lives is one of the pleasures of this admirable book. In Paris, at the Ecole Speciale d’Architecture where he has a scholarship, Andras becomes part of a lively group of Jewish students. He and his friends wonder how seriously to take the anti-Semitic graffiti found on the final project of a group of Jewish students and debate the meaning of the “Youth of France” meetings some of their classmates attend. Through a chance encounter before he left Budapest, Andras meets Klara, a lovely but elusive, 30-something ballet teacher and her surly teenage daughter, Elisabet.

Despite the age difference between them and Klara’s unwillingness to reveal details about her past, the two fall in love. Their interests are personal and artistic but politics forces itself upon them. Drinking whiskey with his friends, Andras debates the significance of the moment when “Chamberlain, who had never before set foot on an airplane, flew to Hitler’s mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden to discuss what everyone was now calling the Sudeten crisis.” In the late summer of 1939, thinking it is a brief trip to renew his visa, Andras returns to Budapest. The second half of the book’s action takes place over the next five years in Hungary.

There is an old-fashioned heft to this novel. It is long (almost 600 pages), linear, and told in both lively dialogue and rich prose that deepens the reader’s appreciation for the setting and for what is happening while also giving forward thrust to the plot. “How could he have known it would be his last night as a resident of Paris? What might he have done, how might he have spent those hours if he’d known? Would he have walked the streets all night to fix in his mind their unpredictable angles, their smells, their variances of light?”

There is something old-fashioned, too, in the essential wholesomeness of the characters and their relationships. Andras and Tibor, and their younger brother Matyas, are humorous and affectionate, deeply loving, dedicated and loyal. They respect their parents; they value their many friends. The female characters sustain each other through shared intimacies and heartaches. Even Klara’s nephew, the spoiled, self-indulgent Jozsef, eventually grows into a strong and principled man. Nasty Elisabet mellows as she matures.

Ultimately, though, the main agent driving this book’s action is not its many characters or the choices they make; it is political events beyond the control of these characters. The world itself is dysfunctional. The ways in which Andras attempts to influence his fate prove useless - he cannot bribe his way to freedom for himself or his brothers, his attempt to flee to Palestine is thwarted. Only fierce determination and his imagination keep him alive. Worked almost to death in a forced labor camp, Andras and a buddy create a tongue-in-cheek underground newspaper. One of its articles describes an engineering marvel designed by “Paris-trained architect-engineer Andras Levi … an invisible bridge. … Tests suggest that the design of the bridge may still need some refinement; a battalion of the Hungarian Army mysteriously plunged into a chasm while crossing.”

“The Invisible Bridge” ends in America, with a girl on the verge of adulthood sipping bitter coffee in the sunshine, reflecting that perhaps she is ignorant of the details of her grandparents’ painful past because she has never asked them about them. This novel is the product of such questioning by the author who gratefully acknowledges the contributions to it of grandparents and other relatives. It is a substantial achievement, a gripping story grounded in rich historical detail and sensitive observation of the way human beings experience joy, calamity and everyday life, individually and together.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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