It's an odd time for New Year's resolutions, but who's counting? I thought I would kickstart my summer (the one that Oregon hasn't had yet because of all the rain) by naming names when I come across a worthwhile book that isn't getting full-page ads, TV spots and a promotional kick that swamps anything a book critic could do for it. In other words, no matter how much I liked them, no need for me to go on about books by Jennifer Wiener or Stieg Larsson (although I just saw the movie version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," so, dawning my paper film critic's hat: thumbs up!).
But I digress. First book on my Sleepers list: Julie Orringer's "The Invisible Bridge" (Knopf). Yes, I know, this isn't a you-must-be-kidding-me pick. Amazon dubbed it for the "best books" list, and it received a pat on the back last weekend from The New York Times Book Review. But it takes a lot more than that to get a book into the bestseller ranks these days. The novel does feel a bit rushed at the end, as the NYTBR reviewer, Andrew Ervin, states. But the larger sweep of the story had me enthralled -- a rare occurrence for this hardbitten vet of contemporary fiction -- both because of Orringer's fine writing and her ability to show the incremental steps that took millions of European Jews to their deaths.
The central character in the story, a Hungarian architectural student who gets the chance to study in Paris, appears to be a young man on the rise as the book opens. By its end, you feel thankful -- no, astonished -- that he's still alive. And his descent, defying any sense of basic human rights, unfolds so gradually that it seems quite plausible.
Orringer's achievement is to show how this dehumanization process occurred. She's hardly the first to do so -- Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel were way ahead of her, and with the strength of first-hand testimony to boot. Meanwhile, Leon Uris' "Exodus" introduced me to the madness of the Holocaust decades ago, and the topic has been reworked in fiction countless times since then Still, "The Invisible Bridge," based on the author's grandfather's own experience before and during World War II, is better written than most (including "Exodus"). Orringer builds her backdrop with a strong sense of place and historical detail, then places on it multi-dimensional characters who engage your sympathies. Her plotting keeps you wanting to know what happens next. This is as good an historical novel as I've read in a good long time. -- ELLEN