Andras Lévi and his brother, Tibor, have moved from the Hungarian countryside to Budapest and are ready to start their lives. Andras heads to Paris on an architecture scholarship; Tibor hopes to study medicine in Italy. But it's 1937 and they're Jewish. Their plans will be interrupted.
This is the opening of Julie Orringer's debut novel, The Invisible Bridge, an account of Andras and his brother in the years before and during World War II. Before the war begins in earnest, Andras has a couple of years, and nearly three hundred pages, in Paris. He learns the language, gets a day job, impresses Le Corbusier, and falls in love with Klara, a former ballerina several years his senior. His life in the city is meticulously, deliciously detailed. We see through his eyes as he walks to class, know what he drinks (the cheapest thing on the menu), learn that he heats his garret room with a fireplace, and follow along when he joins rich expatriates throwing libertine parties.
Andras's Europe is fully realized: its cornices and cobblestones, its frigid winters and chance meetings in cafés. This is no small achievement, especially since Orringer is a relatively young author with just one (excellent) short-story collection behind her, How to Breathe Underwater (2003). Yet Andras is as blurry as his environment is sharply drawn; his personality—apart from being dutiful and devoted—doesn't come into focus. Where dialogue might reveal more, Orringer falters. "There are things you don't know about me," Klara tells Andras during a terrible fight. "Things that might frighten you, or change the way you felt." "That's right," he responds. "And there's a great deal you don't know about me. But what does that matter now?"
This is a shame, because as the novel moves into World War II, the individual degradations are felt less. Instead, the story's emphasis falls on their collective survival. In 1940, Andras is forced to return to Hungary, which was still a relatively safe place for Jews. Although the country's anti-Semitic laws had prompted the brothers to seek professions elsewhere in Europe, Hungary held off the Final Solution until 1944, when Germany took direct control of the nation. As the war progressed, young men like Andras and Tibor were conscripted into the Forced Labor Service and then the army. Slowly starving, subject to systemic cruelty and life-saving luck, Andras struggles and periodically makes it back to Budapest and Klara. There, his family and hers, initially separated greatly by class, are drawn together by the increasingly dire circumstances.
The questions of who will survive and how drive the novel's second half, but they also hang heavily over Andras's life as a carefree student in Paris. Orringer doesn't exploit this tension, and her tale feels bifurcated. Still, if Andras, Klara, and Tibor are at first too much at arm's length to deliver us into their emotional world, eventually we cannot but root for them to survive the ravages of the war.