By Julie Orringer
624 pages; Knopf
An old-fashioned romantic drama, Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge is as rich in historical detail as it is human in its cast of sympathetic characters. The novel begins in 1937 Budapest, where a discriminatory quota system has forced a 22-year-old Hungarian Jew named Andras Lévi to seek his education abroad. He heads to architecture school in Paris, a place of modernist ferment, and finds an even fuller education in the arms of Klara Morgenstern, a 31-year-old ballet instructor and Hungarian émigré with a shadowy past. But Hitler's Third Reich is on the march, and when Andras's visa expires, he and Klara return to Hungary, a Nazi-allied country that nevertheless seems an uneasy sanctuary for Jews. Over the next four years, Andras serves in several labor services while Klara and her relatives are fleeced by corrupt authorities. Despite the clearly imminent doom, Orringer keeps these chapters surprisingly buoyant: Andras works for one subversive newspaper after another in the labor camps (a sports section covers "wheelbarrow-pushing, snow-shoveling, and tree-felling"), and is saved from certain death by a pair of officers. But as the Nazis advance, thousands of Hungarians die in a wave of bombings that leaves Budapest's bridges "in ruins, their steel cables and concrete supports melting into the sand-colored rush of the river." This is a painful novel of war. And it is a hopeful one that speaks to the power of love and the steadfastness of the heart.