Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer, a fictional take on Varian Fry's courageous WWII years

Orringer’s (The Invisible Bridge, 2010) gripping second novel centers on Varian Fry, the American editor who undertook great risk to rescue endangered European artists and intellectuals from the Holocaust.

Overseeing the Emergency Rescue Committee’s work in 1940 Marseille, Varian and his fellow activists use delicate personal connections to ensure high-profile refugees’ escape from Vichy France through legal and illegal means, amid limited finances and a less-than-supportive State Department.

Into this high-pressure atmosphere arrives Elliott Grant, Varian’s (imaginary) former lover, requesting a complicated favor. Through their revived affair, the story explores issues of identity and living one’s authentic self. Grant is a convincing creation, but readers may be uneasy that considerable emotional weight and suspense hinge on a historical character’s fictional relationship and its repercussions.

Still, Orringer is a beautiful prose stylist who captures depth of meaning about complex human issues, and she addresses head-on the moral dilemma of making value judgments on individual lives. She crafts a vivid portrait of wartime Marseille, its innate sophistication darkened by Nazi oppression, and of Fry’s heroic real-life accomplishments.

I read The Flight Portfolio back in February for review in Booklist's 4/15 issue; the book was published in May by Knopf.

For additional perspectives, which are worth reading, please see Novel Historian's review of The Flight Portfolio -- not dissimilar in our conclusions, but more detailed and with some different points -- and Cynthia Ozick's review in The New York Times (though heads up about a spoiler midway through).

Even if you skip Ozick's review, in which she says "For the historical Fry, beyond hunches and hints, there is no evidence of homosexuality," if you're interested in biographical novels and the fact vs. fiction debate, you'll want to read the letters to the editor sent to the NYT in response: "Was Varian Fry Gay -- and Should It Matter?  Readers respond." Notably, Varian Fry's son is the author of one of these letters.


  1. As always, I enjoy your comments, Sarah, and I'd missed the readers' response to Ozick's review. I think it's fair to say that Orringer's novel is hard to approach. (And thanks for the publicity.)


  2. Thanks for your comments, Larry. I hadn't seen the responses to Ozick's review until I went looking around for the link to the original, and both NYT pages came up. "Hard to approach," I'd agree with that.