Julie Orringer’s magnificent second novel...is a deeply researched, almost unbearably tense, bruised-knuckle hybrid. Part real history and part love story, it’s also a deeply moral work, asking tough question about what matters most to us personally—and to the world ... Although deeply concerned with politics, at its heart, the novel is a love story ... The writing is gorgeous. Marseille comes alive, and so does the palpable terror of its denizens who are desperate to escape. Occasionally, Orringer overexplains, repeating her messages about the Flight Portfolio, having Elliott and Fry dissect their relationship perhaps one time too many. But these are quibbles in an important book that poses important questions[.]
...if the young Varian Fry once resembled a type of dramatically evolving character in fiction, he has now become, in Julie Orringer’s sympathetic and prodigiously ambitious novel, a fictional character himself ... Orringer’s scrupulous research into this turbulent period goes far beyond bookishness. Her landscapes regularly rise to a Keatsian sensuousness. Her Marseille breathes as a city breathes ... Orringer revivifies with cinematic verisimilitude ... For the historical Fry, beyond hunches and hints, there is no evidence of homosexuality. Yet Orringer makes it a part of his character, expanding on speculations by Fry’s biographer, Andy Marino ... Even the glamour of the homoerotic, which fuels Orringer’s engine of suspense, turns threadbare through overexposure. In scene after scene, Varian’s leg slides seductively (and also schematically) along Grant’s; or vice versa. The mind of the Varian Fry of The Flight Portfolio is Orringer’s mind, and how, in the war between history and imagination, can we deny her that? ... why should it matter that Orringer’s vertiginous unscrollings of event and intent, unfolding in the south of France in the very pit of Vichy brutality, are chiefly her own? But it does matter ... The Flight Portfolio is more Hitchcock than history. Then know, as you read on, excited and enthralled, that Orringer’s Varian is movie-tone make-believe. Do not mistake him for Varian Fry.
Orringer is a blue-chip writer ... [her] books are of the kind invariably reviewed using the same small cachet of words: rich, sweeping, ambitious, heartfelt, exquisite. To her credit, Orringer earns them all. She’s a superb researcher, a natural storyteller and a clear writer. The Flight Portfolio is in a style I think of as high-unimpeachable, difficult but riskless, with only safe little darting flights of flamboyance ... But...one might begin to wonder about the idea of genius ... You might start by asking why so many geniuses have been white men, for instance ... But those difficulties aren’t within Orringer’s range ... The Flight Portfolio constructs...a satisfying and commanding novel. Yet the farther we get from living memory of the war, perhaps the less the novels about it...should be quite so rich, so sweeping, so satisfying.
There’s all kinds of fraught swashbuckling and subterfuge in Orringer’s meticulously researched recounting...And a gorgeous sense of place...But it’s the sweeping gay romance at its center, and the daily moral quandaries of Fry’s job — how is one life more worth saving than another? — that make the book’s more familiar elements feel new; it’s classic storytelling through a transgressive lens. Portfolio offers a testament to something nicely old-fashioned, though, too: the enduring transformative power of art, and love, in any form.
The hurdles of bureaucracy ought to be a lethally boring source for dramatic conflict, yet the most exciting passages of The Flight Portfolio concern Fry’s tireless and often inventive methods for helping his growing clientele ... 'How much did the will of a single person count for?' Fry wonders in exhaustion near the book’s end, but by this point Ms. Orringer’s passionate and thoroughgoing tribute has reminded readers that in some instances it counts for a great deal indeed ... The account of Fry’s mission is drawn closely from history, but alongside it Ms. Orringer has attached an entirely imagined love story ... Ethically, I think, this is somewhat murky. Fry wrote several autobiographical books and never discussed his sexuality ... The bigger trouble is that the graft of Fry’s love life onto his war work fails to take ... the implied correlation between Fry’s sexuality and his heroism is reductive, as though he were an uplifting case study rather than a fully dimensional human being. The sense of artificiality dogs the writing, which veers between unconvincing romantic raptures...and operatic clichés ... Ms. Orringer’s hero is a poetry-quoting gay pioneer whose private persecution awakened him to the plight of Jews and refugees under Nazi rule: A different kind of hagiography, to be sure, but hagiography nonetheless.
Through cinematically detailed descriptions of the harbor, hoodlums and hotels of Marseille, intricate details of life in collaborationist France, and multilayered, nuanced characters both real and imagined, Orringer has breathed life into 1940 France ... The novel is thoroughly researched ... Although The Flight Portfolio is written in the style of the mid-20th-century literary novel, its treatment of racial and sexual orientation issues is more modern ... Orringer unsparingly and poignantly compares the political lies and outrages occurring daily in Europe with the personal lies and outrages Fry and Grant must both endure and perpetrate in order to remain accepted members of society ... The Flight Portfolio compellingly juxtaposes the conflicts and tragedies of a world at war with the equally compelling inner wars of the human soul. This complex interweaving of personal and public, fact and fiction, is so smooth as to be nondiscernible.
[Orringer's] narrative bursts with color and life, from the sights and smells of southern France to the wild goings-on of the Surrealists hiding out in a Marseilles mansion, awaiting their chance to get out of the country. There’s suspense and tragedy, unexpected twists and deliverance, though not for everyone. The flaw in this extraordinary book is Orringer’s decision to drive the plot with an affair between the married Fry and Elliott Grant, a secret love from Fry’s Harvard days ... There’s no firm evidence that Fry had an affair on the order of the one portrayed in the novel, but Orringer turns Fry’s love for Grant into a driving force in his life. The larger issue with this approach is that Fry’s agonies over the love affair dominate the portrayal of his inner monologues. At the end of this book, I knew plenty about how Fry felt about Elliott, but it was unclear what angels or demons drove him to take such extraordinary risks ... Still, Orringer has delivered a story with a splendid cast of characters and an intoxicating portrait of a time and place. And she illuminates the central dilemma—for every artist saved by Fry, thousands perished ... The Flight Portfolio vividly portrays those agonizing choices.
The parallels to our current moment are subtle yet impactful. The novel is punctuated with echoes and counterpoints to a dirge of American practices ... However, to the veracity of this reflection, can a text indict the very thing that it reveres? The conceit of saving 'the intellectual treasure of Europe' makes this book a tribute to Western civilization. At the same time, the West also yielded and condoned Nazism, the very apparatus that threatened 'civilization.' Rather than reckon with white supremacy, the text opts for Western individualism ... The text wants us to believe in the sufficiency of individual good will. However, the plot values white art and white lives exclusively, even at the expense of the sole character of color. Given the novel’s timeliness and its argument for solidarity, I worry that it might function as a plea to white readers: See, white people were refugees once too ... However, what’s needed is a challenge ... The Flight Portfolio...veers toward homonationalism. As much as I appreciate this novel—admire its intricate yet effortless plotting, treasure how it captures longing and intimacy—I wonder which among us it would save.
The Flight Portfolio mixes historical fact with imaginative fiction. Though Skiff is an invention, Fry’s bisexuality is well documented, and Orringer makes use of the relationship to explore Fry’s sense of growing empathy and to highlight the moral issues inherent in deciding who is and who is not worth saving. Orringer is a meticulous researcher, and the novel’s cloak-and-dagger thrills keep the pace lively in this lengthy but intriguing tale of resilience and resistance.
Julie Orringer has embroidered the basic narrative into a tome of nearly 600 pages in two ways, one somewhat justifiable and one ham-handed—with a clandestine romance and with leaden, sometimes melodramatic padding ... it’s understandable that Orringer really, really wants readers to appreciate the obstacles Fry faced, whether from Gestapo goons or reluctant refugees. However, she seems to have included in this book every obstacle, every person Fry helped, and even every dinner he consumed in his 13 months in Marseilles ... Certainly this novel is timely, a reminder of the United States’ inexcusable inhumanity 70 years ago when it cruelly blocked desperate refugees.
... prodigious and varied research ... Nor can anyone argue Orringer’s literary gifts. With echoes of Henry James, she excels in particular at the art of description ... As with the experience of reading James, too, one can’t help but notice that the descriptive prose expands the novel—in The Flight Portfolio’s case, to well over 500 pages ... Focusing exclusively on the artistic implications, however—considering the effects of Orringer’s choices on the novel as a novel—one discerns some pitfalls in the parallel plotline. Some readers may regret its effects on the pacing of the mission-focused narrative. Others may tire of certain repetitions in the love story ... it occurs to me that the novelistic right may produce something beyond the artistic creation itself: an invitation for the reader who seeks to be educated as well as entertained to investigate further...The degree to which this invitation may inspire readers will vary.
[Elliot 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. Ultimately Orringer crafts a vivid portrait of wartime Marseille, its innate sophistication darkened by Nazi oppression, and of Fry’s heroic real-life accomplishments.
As in 2010’s superb The Invisible Bridge Orringer seamlessly combines compelling inventions with complex fact: figures including Marc Chagall and Andre Breton make vivid appearances, while Skiff and his relationship with Fry are unforgettable fictional creations. Brilliantly conceived, impeccably crafted, and showcasing Orringer’s extraordinary gifts, this is destined to become a classic.
An elegant, meditative novelistic reconstruction of critical years in the life of Varian Fry ... The cloak-and-dagger element of Orringer’s story is effective, though it runs somewhat long ... Orringer nicely captures two worlds...The central point of intrigue, providing a fine plot twist, is also expertly handled, evidence of an accomplished storyteller at work. Altogether satisfying. Mix Alan Furst and André Aciman, and you’ll have a feel for the territory in which this well-plotted book falls.