Sometimes, nothing satisfies like a sweeping family saga: convincing enough to believe the characters truly existed beyond the bound pages, long enough to feel like they’ve become a part of your lives, inspiring enough to mourn their company once the words are finished. Thus is Julie Orringer‘s debut novel.
Andras Lévi, the middle of three sons in a Hungarian Jewish family, leaves Budapest in 1937 to study on scholarship in Paris at the École Spéciale d’Architecture. A chance meeting at the Royal Hungarian Opera House just before his departure makes Andras a courier to two Paris-based members of the wealthy Hász family: he ferries a trunk full of homemade comforts to young József Hász who lives the posh life of a pampered art student, and delivers a secret hope-filled letter to Claire Morgenstern who will soon be revealed to be Klara Hász. By playing messenger, Andras seals the fate of the Lévi/Hász families, inextricably linked for decades and generations to come.
Supported and guided by the kindness of strangers – a mentor at the École, a generous theater director, a trio of fellow Jewish students – Andras settles into his Parisian life. He eagerly awaits news of his family back home, hoping that his older brother will somehow finally be able to attend medical school in Italy. As for his heart, again by happenstance, he begins a complicated relationship with the older Klara Hász in spite of her teenage daughter’s vehement protestations.
The year, let me remind you again, is 1937: we readers know all too well what is about to happen. Yet in Orringer’s precisely controlled prose, the inevitable catastrophe is illuminated anew, each tragedy a sharp devastation even as history clearly cannot be changed. The growing anti-Semitism encroaches slowly at first. Andras’ scholarship disappears, merely because he is Jewish. Offensive remarks quickly grow into anti-Jewish violence. Laws are changed, basic rights disappear. France expels all non-citizens, and Andras finds himself back in Hungary. Hitler’s power proves unstoppable, sweeping up millions in his vengeful path toward hellish destruction. The Lévi/Hász family cannot escape … but somehow, they must do everything possible to persevere …
Orringer’s intricate 600-page novel (or nearly 28 hours-long, if you choose the audible version, convincingly read by Arthur Morey) is dense with destruction and hope, betrayal and loyalty, heartbreak and renewal. The breadth of her research is astonishing, weaving her fiction seamlessly into history, celebrating the redemptive powers of humanity, even while bearing witness to one of the most heinous periods of man’s making.
The final poem Orringer adds – ”Any Case” by Wislawa Szymborska – is a chilling coda, a shuddering reminder of the random unpredictability of who survives in times of ubiquitous tragedy:
It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Closer. Farther away.
It happened, but not to you.