“The Flight Portfolio,” the new novel from the author of the best-selling “The Invisible Bridge,” is a literary epic, intimate romance and page-turning historical thriller.
Once again, Julie Orringer has found a way to knit the sweep of history and the very personal histories of individuals into a highly satisfying novel.
At the book’s center is Varian Fry, the real-life American who helped establish the Emergency Rescue Committee, which worked to help rescue artists and writers immigrate to the United States at the beginning of World War II.
Working out of Marseille during 1940, Fry is credited with saving more than 1,000 lives. Barely recognized during his lifetime for his humanitarian work, Fry would in 1991 become the first American honored by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
What “The Flight Portfolio” does is take the bare bones of Fry’s remarkable sojourn in France and fashion an historical thriller that unabashedly poses hard questions about both power and individual responsibility.
Orringer’s Varian Fry is 32 years old when he takes over the ground operations on behalf of the Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseille. He is a Harvard-educated journalist and editor whose wife, Eileen, remains stateside.
Varian is strong, well organized, opinionated and charming. He’s also rather arrogant and somewhat elitist. “Since childhood he’d lived in an adversarial dance with his own mind, filling it with whatever seemed impossible, daring it to prove him wrong.”
One night, Varian finds a silver cufflink engraved with a nautilus shell. That cufflink, it turns out, belongs to Elliott Grant, a college friend Varian hasn’t heard from in 12 years. Elliott asks Varian’s help to locate and arrange passage out of France for Gregor Katznelson and his son Tobias.
Both Varian and Elliott are harboring individual and shared secrets from the past. The two men renew their love affair, which ended abruptly 12 years prior. At one point early in the novel, when they begin to rediscover that they are incapable of really knowing each other, Varian and Elliott admit that “no one had done more damage to their lives that they’d done to each other’s.”
At this point “The Flight Portfolio” begins asking rather unsettling questions about human “worth” and about superiority. The similarities to the Nazi worldview are obvious. The choices Varian makes from his position in the Emergency Rescue Committee are sometimes scrutinized by even his friends. One of them argues, “I know that what we’ve been doing is wrong. It doesn’t feel humanitarian. It feels the opposite. Inhumane.”
When Varian resists that assessment, his friend immediately counters with, “There’s something seductive about sitting in a seat of power, isn’t there? Having the authority to judge.”
The broad scope of the novel is punctuated with magnificent mini-portraits of corrupt government officials and surprisingly daring civilians, from housekeepers to ship captains.
There are also striking appearances made by many artists and writers, from Marc Chagall to André Gide, from Hannah Arendt to Max Ernst.
The grand issue of who is to judge human worth remains the power of this meticulously researched and imminently readable novel. It is also an issue that forces Varian and Elliott to confront the individual secret each has been harboring as well as the mutual secret that resurfaces — just as that nautilus cufflink does — and is given full rein amidst the fears of arrest by the Vichy government.
Julie Orringer’s new novel poses difficult and disquieting questions, to be sure. At the same time, “The Flight Portfolio” is as gripping as any recent thriller.
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.