Love, sacrifice, and persecution in WWII-era France.
Good to know
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.
The Flight Portfolio
There was, as it turned out, no train to the village where the Chagalls lived: one of many complications he’d failed to anticipate. He had to pay a boy with a motorbike to run him up from the station at Cavaillon, ten miles at a brainshaking pace along a narrow rutted road. On either side rose ochre hills striated with grapevines and lavender and olive trees; overhead, a blinding white-veined sky. The smell was of the boy’s leather jacket and of charred potatoes, exhalate of his clever homemade fuel. At the foot of the village the boy parked in a shadow, accepted Varian’s francs, and tore off into the distance before Varian could arrange a ride back.
The streets of Gordes, carved into a sunstruck limestone hill above the Luberon Valley, offered little in the way of shade. He would have given anything to be back in Marseille with a glass of Aperol before him, watching sailors and girls, gangsters and spice vendors, parading the Canebière. The Chagalls had only agreed to see him on the basis that he not bring up the prospect of their emigration. But what other subject was there? The Nazis had taken Paris months ago, they were burning books in the streets of Alsace, they could send any refugee over the border at will. At least the Chagalls had agreed; that was something. But as he reached the house, an ancient Catholic girls’ school on the rue de la Fontaine Basse, he found himself fighting the urge to flee. His credentials, if anyone examined them, amounted to a fanatic’s knowledge of European history, a desire to get out from behind his desk in New York, and a deep frustration with his isolationist nation. And yet this was his job; he’d volunteered for it. What was more, he believed he could do it.
Why I love it
BOTM Editorial Team
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.
Member ratings (4,384)
Upper Arlington, OH
I really loved the characters, both real and imagined. The story rests on the question “how do we value an individual’s life” and has really left me wondering what I would do in Varian Fry’s shoes.
I’ve read a lot of WWII literature, but this was a revolutionary take. It’s focus on the arts and on the struggle of being gay in a time when it was not socially acceptable made for a compelling read.
San Jose, CA
As an art history major, I loved this book. It was definitely a slower read and at times it felt a bit overwritten. There was also a lot of characters to keep track of, but they were all well written
This book will pull on all your heart strings, in so many different ways. The author did an amazing job of combining truth and fiction, while painting the journey of WWII France and the hero's within.
San Antonio , TX
yes, gay/bi people did exist in all of history! Baron von stueben for example in our own revolution for example! Beautiful love story and fantastic historical novel.Thank you Julie for the real Varian