If there’s a worthwhile novel where everyone is happy and no one feels pain, I haven’t read it. Struggle is an essential element of narrative, and two new books put the spotlight on two characters in the thick of their own battles.
Julie Orringer’s “The Flight Portfolio” (Knopf, 562 pp., $28.95) resurrects the astounding true story of Varian Fry, a wealthy heir to a Wall Street fortune whose life changed forever when, as a young journalist in 1930s Germany, he saw Jews savagely beaten by the Nazis on the streets of Berlin.
In 1940 Fry went to work in Vichy France for the privately funded Emergency Rescue Committee, an organization whose mission was to save Europe’s artists, musicians, writers and political activists from annihilation. By the time he was expelled from Marseille in September 1941, Fry had hustled and smuggled more than 2,000 Jews out of Europe to safety, including writer André Breton, philosopher Hannah Arendt and artists Marcel Duchamp and Marc Chagall, among many others. In 1994 Fry became the first American to be listed as “Righteous Among the Nations” at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, an award given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis.
Orringer turns Fry’s story into fiction. Her narrative bursts with color and life, from the sights and smells of southern France to the wild goings-on of the Surrealists hiding out in a Marseilles mansion, awaiting their chance to get out of the country. There’s suspense and tragedy, unexpected twists and deliverance, though not for everyone.
The flaw in this extraordinary book is Orringer’s decision to drive the plot with an affair between the married Fry and Elliott Grant, a secret love from Fry’s Harvard days. Grant is trying to save the son of his current lover from the Gestapo, and he enlists Fry’s help. Soon the flame of desire is rekindled and the two men enter an intense erotic relationship fueled by danger, secrecy and the very real possibility that they could both die tomorrow.
There’s no firm evidence that Fry had an affair on the order of the one portrayed in the novel, but Orringer turns Fry’s love for Grant into a driving force in his life. The larger issue with this approach is that Fry’s agonies over the love affair dominate the portrayal of his inner monologues. At the end of this book, I knew plenty about how Fry felt about Elliott, but it was unclear what angels or demons drove him to take such extraordinary risks. He was a son of privilege and comfort. What inner wellspring of courage fueled his resolve to flout the authorities, to the point that he was declared persona non grata by the U.S. State Department and kicked out of Vichy France?
Still, Orringer has delivered a story with a splendid cast of characters and an intoxicating portrait of a time and place. And she illuminates the central dilemma — for every artist saved by Fry, thousands perished, and part of his job was to choose who escaped to freedom, and who was left stranded in France for roundup and annihilation. As Grant tells Fry: “I know the value of art, I like to read and look at paintings as much as the next guy … but this is a goddamn war, a war, and they’re all humans, and how can you presume to pick which ones to save and which to throw into the fire?” “The Flight Portfolio” vividly portrays those agonizing choices.
A struggle of a different sort, of an aging man confronting relentless change and impending mortality, is the stuff of “Henry, Himself” (Viking, 369 pp., $27) by Stewart O’Nan, an author who excels at portraying the dilemmas and desires of ordinary people.
O’Nan’s new novel is the third in a trilogy about the Maxwell family of Pittsburgh. The Maxwells first appeared in his 2002 novel “Wish You Were Here,” a story set during the family’s weeklong annual vacation at their lake house after Henry has died. His 2011 follow-up, “Emily, Alone,” goes deeper into the story of Emily Maxwell’s widowhood.
Henry’s death haunts the first two novels, but “Henry, Himself” is set in 1998, and Henry and Emily are still a couple, navigating the streets of a town they have called home for decades but increasingly don’t recognize. A shooting with an assault rifle devastates a backyard party. The rituals they rely on to mark their lives, from flower shows to summers by the lake, can’t provide a bulwark against the erosion of time. A World War II veteran in his 70s, Henry struggles with his health and his worries about what will happen to Emily when he goes.
But there’s enduring love in this story. There’s the lifelong romance between Henry and Emily, marked by prickly interludes and moments of sublime companionship. Their affectionate but flawed family is still part of their lives. O’Nan wisely refrains from dropping any narrative bombs into the story, leaving the characters to expand and fill the spaces. A wise, tender and humorous writer, he portrays outwardly unexceptional people with rich inner lives defined by doubt and anxiety, affection and hope. “Henry, Himself” is a beautiful book with a touch of the ineffable about it, and the best novel I have read so far this year.