The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer

After making such good progress with my 20 Books of Summer list in June and July, I seem to have slowed down a lot in August. Some of the books on my list have turned out to be a lot longer than I expected, including this one, which has almost 600 pages in the new UK paperback edition published today. I really enjoyed Julie Orringer’s 2011 novel The Invisible Bridge, about a Hungarian-Jewish student who leaves Budapest to study architecture in Paris during World War II, so I was looking forward to reading The Flight Portfolio – but I have to say, it really did feel like a 600 page book and I think it could easily have been a lot shorter!

The plot is quite a fascinating one, set in the same period as The Invisible Bridge, but this time based on the true story of a real historical figure: Varian Fry, an American journalist who helped thousands of Jewish refugees to escape from Occupied France. I knew nothing about Fry before starting this book, so it was interesting to read about the rescue network he created in Marseille – part of the Emergency Rescue Committee – where he and a group of other volunteers had an intricate system in place to provide people with fake documents and then to smuggle them across the border into Spain and from there to America.

However, the people Fry and the ERC rescue are not just anyone – they are what Fry describes as ‘the intellectual treasure of Europe’, famous artists, writers and philosophers, chosen based on their talent. This bothered me from the beginning – while I can understand the desire to save the life of someone who could potentially go on to provide pleasure and inspiration for millions of others, surely the lives of people without those particular talents have just as much value – so I was pleased that the characters do eventually begin to question and discuss the moral issues their work raises. It was also nice to come across Heinrich and Golo Mann as two of the refugees being rescued (Thomas Mann’s brother and son, who appeared in another of my recent reads, The Magician by Colm Tóibín). I love finding connections like that between books I’ve read and it was interesting to see Heinrich and Golo from the perspective of the person coordinating their escape, rather than just hearing about their adventures after they’d already reached safety, as we did in The Magician.

I felt that this book was much less exciting than it could have been, though. I never really got a true sense of the danger these people were in, which was disappointing as I’d expected a thrilling, suspenseful story. Maybe this is because the book concentrates mainly on the administrative side of the rescue scheme – obtaining visas, offering bribes, dealing with the US Consul and the Marseille police – or maybe there were just too many different writers, artists and intellectuals appearing in the story, making it difficult for me to become emotionally invested in any of them. A bigger problem for me was the amount of time Orringer devotes to a fictional romance between Fry and an old friend from Harvard, Elliot Grant. There seems to be some controversy over whether or not the real Varian Fry had homosexual relationships (we do know that he was married to Eileen Hughes, editor of Atlantic Monthly); however, although I don’t mind the author inventing a love story for Varian, it did seem that it became the main focus of the story for large sections of the book and the important work he was doing with the ERC was pushed into the background.

The Flight Portfolio wasn’t quite what I’d hoped it would be, but it was good to learn a little bit about Varian Fry and as I did love The Invisible Bridge, I would be happy to read more Julie Orringer books in the future.

Thanks to Little, Brown Group UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 11/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 41/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

13 thoughts on “The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer

    • Helen says:

      I should have stopped reading it, really, but I don’t like abandoning books! I’m pleased that I’ve learned something about Varian Fry, anyway.

  1. BookerTalk says:

    It’s rare that I find a novel over 500 pages that warrants that length. It usually contains a lot of background info that I feel is there just to pad out the narrative.

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