At what point did the sweeping epic — novels steeped in grand gestures, fictional worlds in which innocents are buffeted by the inevitability of history, tales of foreign cultures, extreme good and the darkest evil — become old-fashioned?
Outside of the classics, access to that type of literature is no longer common. In fact, when it does happen, it tends to be boxed into the conventions of genre fiction: stout paperbacks on the romance, fantasy or, yes, young-adult bookshelves.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer is a rare achievement, a hefty and compellingly readable piece of literature that, published mere weeks ago, feels as if it pre-dates the author’s own 37 years. This doesn’t make Orringer better than her contemporaries currently spinning novels that are just as smartly crafted — Adam Haslett, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer, Brady Udall and the newly celebrated Tom Rachman quickly leap to mind — it just makes her undertaking all the more interesting.
There is nothing modern in her telling. Instead, Orringer has returned to the basics of storytelling. In Andras Levi, she molds a classic protagonist, an architecture student humble in his talent and awed by the Paris of the late 1930s, where he is sent from Hungary on scholarship to the Ecole Speciale.
While this early setting is an excuse to define Andras and to set in motion his affair with the (also Hungarian) nine-years-older ballet mistress Klara (and, yes, much is made of that age difference), it feels more like an opportunity for the author to once again marry the word Paris to romance and to re-create a world with which we have become all too familiar.
In the expansive tradition of Pasternak or Tolstoy, Orringer seduces us for a couple of hundred pages with love, food, wine, ballet, cafes, parties, theater, beauty, culture. Big, passionate ideas illustrated in so much masterly detail that we can taste and smell and see.
She also creates conflict out of the mundane — will Klara’s teenage daughter stonewall Andras and Klara’s ultimate happiness? — because we know there is a rumbling in the background. History has worse things in store for these two. After all, Andras is Jewish. And Klara has secrets.
As with any fine epic, narrative thrust is deliciously dependent on those secrets. It’s no surprise, and no spoiler is needed here because of it, that Andras and Klara must be separated. The “portrait of a lost world” must become, well, lost. After all, we have hundreds of pages to go… a devastating war, a most horrific period of recent world history and a pulse-quickening conclusion ahead.
Now turn again to the author’s glamorous and youthful photo: She wrote this? Orringer’s 2003 award-winning short-story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, more than hinted at significant talent, but nothing was there to predict such a wide net. Here, she stitches with suchprecision and skill that it defies pointing to any one sentence here, any one paragraph there, as an example of her fine work. The Invisible Bridge is dense with a master’s intelligence.
The flaw in the system, in fact, may be that very competence of language and structure. This story of Andras and Klara is, frankly, so chock full of carefully constructed beauty that it occasionally emits gloss and sterility. Something to admire, not always something to touch.
What a relief it will be to see what Orringer creates next. The Invisible Bridge weighted as it is with the stuff of classic novels, points to a career that, by all accounts, is capable of soaring beyond the epic.