A long, richly detailed debut novel from prizewinning short-story writer Orringer (How to Breathe Underwater, 2003), unfolding from a little-explored area of the Holocaust.
The brothers Andras and Tibor Levi, Hungarian Jews, are models of aspiration. As the narrative opens, Andras is bound for Paris to study architecture, Tibor for Italy to study medicine. The year is 1937, far enough along in the proceedings that neither should be surprised to learn that bad things are about to happen; yet both are so resolutely set on their paths that, it seems, the outside world does not always figure. Andras is helped along by a few fellow Jews at the Parisian academy, as well as a seemingly sympathetic artist who inspires him to contemplate, at 22, converting to “become a Christian, and not just a Christian—a Roman Catholic, the Christians who’d imagined houses of God like Notre-Dame, like the Saint-Chapelle, like the Mátyás Templom or the Basilica of Szent István in Budapest.” This will not be the first time Andras gives free play to lofty-mindedness, but the mood gives way to earthlier concerns when he meets a woman who has an engagingly complex past—and whose story will travel alongside Andras’s through the labor-camp system and, eventually, the Nazi death machine. Tibor’s story is a quieter version of Andras’s; indeed, the reader sometimes wonders whether Orringer has forgotten about him, though only for a time. The author works large themes of family, loyalty and faith across a huge sweep of geography and history. Her settings are the smart avenues of world capitals, snowy dirt tracks on the road to Stalingrad, even the woods of upstate New York. Her story develops without sentimentality or mawkishness, though it is full of grand emotions. Though the events of the time, especially in Hungary, are now the stuff of history books and increasingly fewer firsthand memories, Orringer writes without anachronism, and convincingly.
Written with the big-picture view of Doctor Zhivago or Winds of War—and likely to be one of the big books of the season.