The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

“Thrilling, tender, and terrifying; a glorious reminder of how books can change our lives. It is the novel of the year.”—Andrew Sean Greer

Julie Orringer’s astonishing first novel, eagerly awaited since the publication of her heralded best-selling short-story collection, How to Breathe Underwater (“fiercely beautiful”—The New York Times; “unbelievably good”—Monica Ali), is a grand love story set against the backdrop of Budapest and Paris, an epic tale of three brothers whose lives are ravaged by war, and the chronicle of one family’s struggle against the forces that threaten to annihilate it.

Paris, 1937. Andras Lévi, a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student, arrives from Budapest with a scholarship, a single suitcase, and a mysterious letter he has promised to deliver to C. Morgenstern on the rue de Sévigné. As he falls into a complicated relationship with the letter’s recipient, he becomes privy to a secret history that will alter the course of his own life. Meanwhile, as his elder brother takes up medical studies in Modena and their younger brother leaves school for the stage, Europe’s unfolding tragedy sends each of their lives into terrifying uncertainty. At the end of Andras’s second summer in Paris, all of Europe erupts in a cataclysm of war.

From the small Hungarian town of Konyár to the grand opera houses of Budapest and Paris, from the lonely chill of Andras’s room on the rue des Écoles to the deep and enduring connection he discovers on the rue de Sévigné, from the despair of Carpathian winter to an unimaginable life in forced labor camps and beyond, The Invisible Bridge tells the story of a love tested by disaster, of brothers whose bonds cannot be broken, of a family shattered and remade in history’s darkest hour, and of the dangerous power of art in a time of war.

Expertly crafted, magnificently written, emotionally haunting, and impossible to put down, The Invisible Bridge resoundingly confirms Julie Orringer’s place as one of today’s most vital and commanding young literary talents.

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Julie Orringer is the author of the award-winning short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater, which was a New York Times Notable Book. She is the winner of The Paris Review’s Discovery Prize and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Stanford University, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is researching a new novel.

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From our Q&A with the author

What was your inspiration for The Invisible Bridge?

Ten years ago, a few weeks before I went to Paris for the first time, my grandfather told me he’d lived in that city for two years when he was a young man. That was the first I’d heard of it. He told me he’d been accepted to architecture school on a scholarship in 1937, but had to quit when the war began. Because he was Jewish, and a Hungarian citizen, he was conscripted into the Hungarian labor service and lost his student visa.
Before that moment I’d never known he’d trained to be an architect. He’d been a window dresser for Sears Roebuck and Co. for thirty years: that was what I knew of his professional life. His war experience was even more patchy and abstract in my mind: he’d been in and out of forced labor camps, I knew, but I’d heard nothing about what he’d experienced and witnessed there.

Over the weeks and months that followed, he and I began to talk about that time of his life—how he’d won the scholarship; what it had been like for him, a Jewish boy from rural Hungary, to move to Paris; how he’d survived there; what he’d studied; where he’d lived; who his friends were; why he’d had to leave. Then I started asking about what had happened during the war. Those questions gave rise to a cascade of stories, events that no one in our family had ever spoken of—what his time in forced labor had been like, how his relationship with my grandmother had developed during his furloughs, how his own brothers had been conscripted, imprisoned, and killed. As I listened, it occurred to me that few Americans knew the fate of the Hungarian Jews during the war—Hungary wasn’t occupied by Germany until spring of 1944, its Jewish population left mainly intact until the Final Solution had become such an efficient machine that it did away with more than half of Hungary’s Jews in a matter of months.

As we talked, a narrative began to take shape in my mind—not one that followed my grandfather’s experience exactly, but one that began in 1937 with a young Hungarian Jewish man and a scholarship to architecture school in Paris, and that extended through the war years. I knew the story had the shape and scope of a novel. I had imagined I might always be a short-story writer, but this was a tale that demanded telling.

Did you do any special research while writing the book?

I had long talks with both of my Hungarian grandparents and with my grandfather’s younger brother, Alfred, who had been imprisoned in Siberia. I took one research trip to Paris and Budapest before I began writing, and another trip three years later, after I’d written most of a first draft and had a better sense of what I needed to know in order to finish the novel. I spent a lot of time in those cities getting to know the neighborhoods where my grandfather had lived, the places he’d studied and worked, the streets he’d walked. In the National Hungarian Archives in Budapest, I met a scholar who recommended the works of Randolph Braham, a professor emeritus at CUNY and a former forced labor inmate himself, who had devoted his professional life to studying the Holocaust in Hungary. In those same archives I came across amazing documents: photographs, letters, and—most surprising—dozens of handwritten underground newspapers produced by the forced labor inmates, full of bawdy dark humor. Laughter in the face of death: that was what I’d least expected to find. I knew those newspapers had to be part of the book.

I met other Holocaust survivors and heard their stories; read dozens of books about the war; watched many hours of the Shoah Foundation’s videotaped interviews; listened to radio programs from the 1930s and 40s; pulled artifacts from the reserves of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; got to know the maps librarian at the New York Public Library; watched wartime films and films about the war; scoured the Internet; and spent many more hours talking to my family about their experiences. Novels like Jeff Eugenides’s Middlesex and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay provided inspiration: evidence of how good research could fertilize good fiction.