Wendy's Reviews > The Invisible Bridge

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
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Apr 28, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: vcfa-reading, world-war-ii, historical-fiction, literary-fiction, doorstops
Read from April 18 to 27, 2011

I have a theory about why some people love this book and others, myself included, struggled to slog through it. First, I think it depends on your personal tolerance for sentimentality. Given that the first half of the book is a love story base on Love with a capital L, which itself is based on beauty, magical first glances, a forbidden element, and an ever mysterious woman, you'd better be content with a sentimentality meter reading that's over the moon. I have a number of reader-friends who would love to wrap themselves up in this kind of thing and take it home...and that's great. For them. If you're of the more cynical persuasion who raises an eyebrow at a college freshman professing his undying fidelity to the older woman who is his first love, wondering what kind of emotional backlash might ensue...don't bother ducking. There is no backlash. This is LOVE. If the main character Andras wrings his hat (and he does this a lot) in an emo fashion over his intended's perceived "infidelity", rest assured that all tension shall be based on complex yet innocent misunderstandings. Because this is LOVE.

And while we're on the subject of sentimentality, let's talk about the characterization. The large cast of co-protagonists in Andras' circle of family and friends are GOOD people, noble and innocent, with few exceptions. Even when the sky itself is on fire and raining down on them, they are insufferably selfless, starving themselves to feed children, nursing each other back to health and so on. They are even anachronistically Modern in their beliefs: of course only Fascists with a capital F would have the nerve to harass a perfectly harmless Gay character, while all our co-protagonists lovingly embrace him As He Is, no questions asked. As all the good non-fascists were wont to do in the late 30's... But the point of good characters is that we sympathize with them, right? Even if it makes them predictable and dull? I suppose, and yet somehow I resent being emotionally manipulated by this kind of forced sympathy: it's just too easy, when unspeakable horrors happen to good people for no reason, especially when children are involved. Of course I KNEW this was a holocaust saga going in, correct? Isn't that the very definition of the genre? What right do I have to complain about this, anyway? (I'll just mention that Suite Francaise was full of petty, ignoble, interesting characters, but somehow I cared about some of them anyway.)

One of the biggest barriers to my appreciation of the story was its relentlessly heavy tone of overwrought momentousness. Even in what should have been lighter moments the characters are wracked with angst and poetically purpled profound thoughts. The result, quite simply, is that it's exhausting. And repetitive. The characters are caught in a cycle of expressing their more dramatic emotions: shocked disbelief, breast-beating sorrow, ecstatic professions of love, misplaced tearful apologies for situations beyond their individual control. The few instances of attempted humor fell flat, and I so wanted them to work. Even an epic saga needs humor, needs the grit of sarcasm and understatement, needs to turn occasionally away from the epic before we are beaten over the head with it.

Which leads me to one of my biggest issues with this book: that the superfluous, overwrought prose waters down what is, deep down, a moving story. The author feels compelled to EXPLAIN everything, not counting on the reader to GET IT on her own. The author relies too much on interpreting for us every little quiver of body language, lest we somehow miss the point of their next unsubtle outpouring of emotion.
The result of all this (unintentional?) telling is that it caulks up the hazy void where subtext tends to dwell. When an author insists on spelling out the meaning behind every little look, glance, and line of dialogue, we readers suspect our intelligence isn’t trusted. Some of us don't mind, but some of us resent it. I noticed this sort of excessive interpretation in The Invisible Bridge, not just once, but consistently.

A prime example of this occurs when the willful Elisabet stays out all night while her mother Klara and the main character search for her: “but when they opened the door they found [Elisabet] on the doorstep, holding a pair of evening shoes in one hand, a cone of spun sugar candy in the other. Klara, standing in the doorway, took a long look at her, at the shoes, the cone of candy; it was clear she hadn’t come from an innocent evening with Marthe.” I would argue that the entire second sentence, semi-colon and all, is unnecessary. The fact that she’s carrying her shoes, that someone bought her candy, signals that she’s been out dancing with a boy and not at Marthe’s house. We don’t need Klara’s prolonged double take, the repetition of “shoes” and “candy” for this to sink in, and certainly not that patronizing phrase “it was clear.” “It was clear” signals (to me) that the writer fears the opposite, that it is not clear at all (which it is), but instead of adding a few extra details to Elisabet’s appearance to bar any imagined confusion—smudged makeup or a man’s handkerchief hanging from her belt or whatever—she lays everything out for us. “It was clear” reappears throughout the novel, and is always used to similar effect as in the following: “Now she held her back rigid while another woman leaned close to her ear; it was clear that the other woman was narrating the progression of Novak’s tete-a-tete with Klara” or even “Soviet planes—or what had appeared at first to be Soviet planes, but might have been German planes in disguise—had bombed the Magyar border town of Kassa. The message was clear: Hungary had no choice but to send its armies into Russia.”

To be fair, there were some very powerful moments in this book. In particular, I was emotionally struck by the part in which Andras and his friend are punished for creating a humorous reactionary newspaper in one of the labor camps and literally forced to "eat their words". During the scene Andras has a chilling realization that he hasn't even seen the worst of the horrors which are to come. But while this should have been a turning point for Andras in which he should have either been galvanized into action or frightened into complicity, neither comes to pass. Apart from a few quips that "you should have seen what they did to us", this scene may as well have never happened, for all the impact it has on Andras' characterization. He is still his same Good self, still willing to conduct a bit of passive resistance without holding his neck out too far.

I think I'm being a bit harsh. Few of us are aware of the Hungarian role in WWII, and Orringer's meticulous research into the details of everyday life in Paris and Budapest are laudable (although the wikipedia-esque summaries of battles and broad political developments that pop up every time a character sits down to read the paper could have been better incorporated). I'm still feeling more than a bit guilty about this review because I know the characters are based on the remarkable experiences of the author's family, and of course one never wants to show one's ancestors in a bad light unless they deserve it. At the same time, in FICTION I want to read about tortured, flawed characters who don't always think politically correct thoughts or are likewise always charitable and forgiving. And not for an unending 700 page slog.

Don't think that a short book could possibly do justice to a weighty subject like WWII? Then I recommend the tiny, incredibly powerful 85 pg novella "Closely Watched Trains" by Bohumil Hrabal about Czech resistance to the German Occupation. It's hilarious and brutal, and takes just one afternoon to read.
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Comments (showing 1-36 of 36) (36 new)

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Judy Excellent review. Don't feel guilty at all. You speak the truth about this book.

Wendy Judy wrote: "Excellent review. Don't feel guilty at all. You speak the truth about this book."

Thanks, Judy :)

message 3: by Manek (new) - added it

Manek Thanks for the great review... I've been struggling to finish the book - especially because of the comparisons to Tolstoy and Stendhal. You've put into words the reasons for my lack of enthusiasm. I'm giving myself permission to stop reading.

Wendy Manek wrote: "Thanks for the great review... I've been struggling to finish the book - especially because of the comparisons to Tolstoy and Stendhal. You've put into words the reasons for my lack of enthusiasm. ..."

Thanks, Manek. I hope you find something else more worth your time! For what it's worth, I finally summoned the courage to pick up Sophie's Choice a few days ago, and so far I've found it to be the perfect antidote for this book. It's horrible, yes, but also hilarious in places and hard to put down. No GOOD people here, and nothing so simplistically black and white.

Juls Wendy, I just finished the book and I think your review was spot on. Too long and repetitive, nothing to ever brighten the mood. The word bleak comes to my mind. Clearly it was a horrible situation for many, many years but it was like nothing good ever happened at all before or after, until literally the last chapter. Thanks for articulating what I was thinking about the book.

Wendy Juls wrote: "Wendy, I just finished the book and I think your review was spot on. Too long and repetitive, nothing to ever brighten the mood. The word bleak comes to my mind. Clearly it was a horrible situati..."

Thanks, Juls!

Lotte My view exactly. Thanks for sharing!

Wendy Lotte wrote: "My view exactly. Thanks for sharing!"

Thank you, Lotte!

Walkwgrace Thank you for writing this review. My mother raved about this book and as I read it I find my self wandering in my mind unable to understand what is so compelling. I too want to read books where I, the reader, am trusted and journey with characters that are human - warts and all! Your review has given me permission to move on and spend my time 'enjoying' another novel instead of 'slogging' through this one. Thank you!

Wendy Yes,it can be tough to give up on a book once you've invested so much time in one already. But , as they say, there are so many books and we only have so much time! Thank you for your comment, Walkwgrace :)

Sheldon Moss Excellent and insightful review. I would just say that the points you raise may have diminished the novel (overwrought language, some sentimentality, etc.). ... That said, it was such a powerful story and I still think, one well-told.

Karen Klink Perhaps, this being the author's first novel, she can be forgiven the points you bring up. In spite of them, I basically enjoyed the novel as, for me, it brought my inability to understand the horror of millions to the understandable horror faced by one person, one family.

Jacquie Sweetwood I love your review.

Wendy Jacquie wrote: "I love your review."

Thanks, Jacquie! Now that it's been a few years, I feel like I went overboard with the nitpicky stuff (all that "clearly" business) but I'm glad that the review is still speaking to readers.

Erica I was lying in bed tonight, determined to finish this book, when I saw that I was only at 24% complete. I just don't know if I have it in me to power through. I'm not enjoying it in the slightest. :(

Joyce My sentiments exactly.

Natalie I didn't read this review on purpose when i started the book. However, after getting 150 in and wanting so desperately to love it but finding it so cheesy! So I now read this review and I don't think I can keep going...

Marit This review is spot on. I am 100 pages away from completing it but I realise I don't really care what happens. Your review points to exactly the reasons why it bores me. I don't think you were being nitpicky at all. :)

Mnmom I'm with Marit.

Wendy Thank you Natalie, Marit and Mnmom for your comments!

message 21: by Jeff (new)

Jeff 90 percent of readers of this novel disagrees with you. I'm part of that 90 percent. I'm a man and I don't like the silly melodramatic novels that are written the tug on the heartstrings. This wasn't one of those books.

Jillian Add me to the list of readers who agree with you!!! This book was PAINFUL!! If I start a book I finish it - I just wish it had been 300 pages not 758!!

Nichole Brown I'm struggling to finish the last 100 pages. My only motivation at this point is to move onto my next read. Excellent review, Wendy...glad to know i'm not solo in this boat.

Virginia I am shocked at the extent to which your sentiments capture mine. Thank you. I don't need to write a review now (mine would not be nearly as good!).

message 25: by Jan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jan I feel the same way. Harsh. But true. I listened to the audio version and I wasn't sure if it was the story or the narrator (probably both). I was sure that if I was reading the book I wouldn't have been able to get through it. That being said, with all the written details I could multi-task and not miss a thing while listening! Not to mention the ending... what happened again?

message 26: by Wendy (last edited Oct 25, 2014 07:17PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Wendy Thanks for your comments!

Jan - I have similar issues when I listen to audiobooks that I don't enjoy -- how much of me not enjoying it is the story, and how much is influenced by the narrator, the slower audiobook pace, or am I trying to multitask too much? That said, I'm not sure I would have made it through this one on audio. How many hours must that have taken? Hats off to you :)

Joann Amidon Thank you for your thoughtful review. I waver between wanting to put it aside and wanting to continue. There is something about the book which just isn't capturing me but I am not sure what it is. I have loved the descriptions of Paris. Your review has given me food for thought.

message 28: by Wendy (last edited Nov 30, 2014 03:50PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Wendy Thanks for chiming in, Joann! Yes, I find I'm a very "emotional" reader, and I need a book to really get its claws into me, so when it doesn't happen I wonder if it was me, or the book (or most likely, a bit of both). And these darn 700+ page books make it that much more difficult. Overall I'm glad I finished it, but I never lost that sense of frustration that "if only x y z, I could be enjoying this much more." I wish you well with your reading!

Erika Thank you for this review! I absolutely loved The Book Thief so I thought that I'd enjoy a similar read. I'm genuinely a little gutted because I really thought I'd love this book. I loved some of the descriptions but there just wasn't a whole lot gelling it all together. I'm up to the halfway point and I just couldn't pinpoint why I wasn't falling in love with the book. This review has put my thoughts into words. I think I'll move onto the next book on my list and hope that it's a better read.

message 30: by Adri (new)

Adri Fantastic review!

message 31: by Liz (new) - rated it 4 stars

Liz Slightly harsh. Do you write notes and put post-its on the paragraphs that annoy you when you read a book? That review was as well researched as the book it was about!

message 32: by D (new) - rated it 2 stars

D Spot on review. Couldn't agree more.

Jennifer Wilson My sentiments exactly.

Maryirene A friend highly recommended this book and I am struggling to finish it. Stopped to read some reviews to help me figure out why I don't really like it. Your review echoes my thoughts! I do find her descriptions of places and events such as the felling of a tree very well done. I think she has great potential as a writer if she can stop being so overly sentimental and goody goody.

Mosunflower I appreciate your review and agree with your thoughts. I tried to listen to this audio book and just cannot get it done.

Roberta Totally agree with this comment. I am mostly enjoying the book. Though finding it endless! This book could/should be about half the length.

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