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Why I love it
Before I tell you why I *loved* this book, let me tell you why I thought I wouldn’t: 1) It’s over 500 pages, which often makes me wish a book had been more harshly edited. 2) It’s about World War II, and, having read more World War II novels than I can count, I’ve grown tired of tropes that often repeat in these stories. 3) I picked it up during a massive reading slump that left me no choice but to binge-watch Game of Thrones. So when I tell you this book reignited my reading life and restored my fried brain, it’s not hyperbole. This book is just that good.
The Flight Portfolio is a fictionalized account of the life of Varian Fry, an American who saves renowned Jewish artists from the Holocaust by smuggling them out of occupied France. From securing false passports, to bribing police officers, to hustling refugees across the border, Varian and his team risk their own lives daily to save the lives—and works—of now-legendary figures. But when a former flame seeks Varian out to save the life of a boy he knows, Varian finds himself torn between duty and love for the man he never thought he’d see again.
The topics in this book are massive—forbidden love, prejudice, the price of a life—but Varian’s story never feels overbearing; instead, it just feels real. Like 2017 Book of the Year winner The Heart’s Invisible Furies, this novel follows closely the life of a likable man struggling with his identity in an unforgiving world. There are moments of lightness (a Surrealist party conducted in the nude, for starters), and of course, the inevitable darkness. If you too need to be zapped back to life by a really good book, then this big ass, big-hearted novel is for you.
In 1940, Varian Fry—a Harvard educated American journalist—traveled to Marseille carrying three thousand dollars and a list of imperiled artists and writers he hoped to rescue within a few weeks. Instead, he ended up staying in France for thirteen months, working under the veil of a legitimate relief organization to procure false documents, amass emergency funds, and set up an underground railroad that led over the Pyrenees, into Spain, and finally to Lisbon, where the refugees embarked for safer ports. Among his many clients were Hannah Arendt, Franz Werfel, André Breton, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall.
The Flight Portfolio opens at the Chagalls' ancient stone house in Gordes, France, as the novel's hero desperately tries to persuade them of the barbarism and tragedy descending on Europe. Masterfully crafted, exquisitely written, impossible to put down, this is historical fiction of the very first order, and resounding confirmation of Orringer's gifts as a novelist.
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