In her debut novel, 2010’s lauded Holocaust epic The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer made fiction feel almost unbearably real; in The Flight Portfolio, her lush-to-overflowing second, she returns to the same era, but finds her hero in the margins of history: Varian Fry, an obscure American who almost singlehandedly took on the task of saving Europe’s creative brain trust — the Jews, Surrealists, and general insurrectionists whose “degenerate art” displeased the Nazi party, and by extension the Vichy government that marched under their thumb in occupied France.
There’s all kinds of fraught swashbuckling and subterfuge in Orringer’s meticulously researched recounting: bribes, smuggling, skin-of-the-teeth escapes. And a gorgeous sense of place, from the teeming, lawless port city of Marseille to the idyllic country villa outside it that doubled as a hideout for luminaries like André Breton and Marc Chagall. But it’s the sweeping gay romance at its center, and the daily moral quandaries of Fry’s job — how is one life more worth saving than another? — that make the book’s more familiar elements feel new; it’s classic storytelling through a transgressive lens. Portfolio offers a testament to something nicely old-fashioned, though, too: the enduring transformative power of art, and love, in any form. A-
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