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Love And Darkness At The Edge Of World War II

Julie Orringer released her first book, How to Breathe Underwater, in 2003, and critics fell in love. Orringer quickly became a young literary celebrity, and her book, deservedly, found a home on several best-of-the-year lists. The nine short stories in the collection were all perfectly executed — poignant, sad and at times dryly funny, Orringer's characters were sometimes close to beaten down, but never stopped searching, even when they weren't sure what they were looking for.

Her readers have been waiting seven years for her follow-up, and her new novel, The Invisible Bridge, is almost everything that How to Breathe Underwater was not. While Orringer's stories, mostly set in contemporary America, were concentrated, subtle and microcosmic, her novel is both a love story writ large and an almost epic ride through the history of Europe just before World War II. It's a bold, ambitious move for an author writing a sophomore effort, but Orringer's fans won't be surprised to know that it pays off. The Invisible Bridge is as different as can be from its predecessor, but it's no less beautiful, breathtaking and vital.

The hero of The Invisible Bridge is Andras Levi, a young Jewish Hungarian who moves to Paris to study architecture in 1937. Andras is a scholarship student from a poor family, unsure of himself, shy. Despite some frightening encounters with anti-Semitic threats and violence, Andras dedicates himself to school, learning French and taking a job in a theater. He eventually meets Klara Morgenstern, an older Hungarian dance teacher living in Paris, and the two fall in love, quickly and breathlessly, despite Klara's doubts and her caginess about her past. As the Nazis start to gain power, Andras and Klara move back to Hungary, trying to find a safe harbor for their new family, even as the German army starts to close in.

Orringer's prose is unfaltering, and she shows remarkable skill in weaving together the two main sections of the novel — the first part, a coming-of-age story reminiscent of early parts of W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage; and the second part, a tense account of a family threatened with war and hatred, which recalls the heroic, romantic realism of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The relationship between Andras and Klara is at the heart of this novel, of course, and Orringer has the rare gift of being able to write about love without being sentimental or unrealistic. Andras, early in their relationship, reflects on falling in love: "He knew that feeling, that powerful and frightening tidal pull: It was Klara, her draw upon him, her inevitability in his life."

The Invisible Bridge might not be the novel that Orringer's fans were expecting, but it's every bit as powerful and haunting as her debut. She's no longer just a writer to watch — she's a writer to follow, and one whose talent, daring and compassion are beginning to look boundless.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.