An elegant, meditative novelistic reconstruction of critical years in the life of Varian Fry, the American classicist who is honored at Yad Vashem as “righteous among the nations” for his work rescuing victims of the Holocaust.
Focusing on the era that informed her first novel, The Invisible Bridge (2010), Orringer opens with an encounter in which Marc Chagall, one of the most beloved of modern artists, figures. He is living in Vichy France, convinced that because it is France he will be kept safe from the Nazis—“These things happened in Germany.” he says. “They won’t happen here. Not to us.” His interlocutor is Varian Fry, who, under the auspices of the Emergency Rescue Committee, is combing the country for a couple of hundred “artists, writers, and intellectuals,” most of them Jewish or politically suspect, who similarly imagined themselves to be safe in France even as the Holocaust begins to unfold and the Gestapo arrest lists lengthen. Fry has allowed himself a month to get those 200 sure victims to safety, and in doing so, as his old friend—and more—Elliott Grant, a shadowy figure of many connections, warns him, he is proving “inconvenient to the American diplomatic mission in France.” The cloak-and-dagger element of Orringer’s story is effective, though it runs somewhat long. Woven into the action is the slow reconciliation between Fry and Grant, whose friendship is deep but at first tentative, finally heating. Orringer nicely captures two worlds, the fraught one of refugee rescue and the more genteel but still complicated one of intellectuals in orbit, with the likes of Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, and Victor Serge among the cast of characters. The central point of intrigue, providing a fine plot twist, is also expertly handled, evidence of an accomplished storyteller at work.
Altogether satisfying. Mix Alan Furst and André Aciman, and you’ll have a feel for the territory in which this well-plotted book falls.