The Flight Port­fo­lio: A Novel

  • Review
By – July 1, 2019

The Flight Port­fo­lio reminds read­ers that despite the pro­fu­sion of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture, poet­ry and film, there are still sto­ries from the mar­gins of World War II that need to be told. Julie Orringer’s nov­el tells the tale of Var­i­an Fry, a jour­nal­ist and edi­tor, who went to Mar­seilles, France, in 1941 as part of an orga­ni­za­tion called the Emer­gency Res­cue Com­mit­tee (ERC). His mis­sion was find­ing the endan­gered intel­lec­tu­al and artis­tic lights of the world and smug­gling them out of Europe to safe­ty. Orringer del­i­cate­ly brings the true his­to­ry of Fry and his orga­ni­za­tion to life, while also pep­per­ing the nar­ra­tive with fic­tion­al­ized char­ac­ters to add dimen­sions and lay­ers to some of the moral issues around the work of the ERC.

The book pro­vides the excite­ment of watch­ing Fry save the likes of Marc Cha­gall, Han­nah Arendt and Andre Bre­ton, among many oth­ers, but also forces the read­er to think about the eth­i­cal com­plex­i­ties of decid­ing whose life is worth sav­ing. See­ing the nooks and cran­nies of the streets, cafes and hotels of Mar­seilles in 1941, and meet­ing the lumi­nar­ies of the lit­er­ary and art world are undoubt­ed­ly high­lights of this nov­el. Going to Chagall’s vil­la pre-war, for exam­ple, watch­ing how he and his wife inter­act­ed and step­ping into his stu­dio, gives read­ers a win­dow into the past and some of the most impor­tant peo­ple who shaped mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion. But these moments of light­ness are then bal­anced by the seri­ous prob­lem with the ERC’s whole under­tak­ing. As one char­ac­ter notes, I know that what we’ve been doing is wrong. It doesn’t feel human­i­tar­i­an. It feels the oppo­site. Inhumane.”

Much of the book is about hold­ing on to human­i­ty in the face of the scape­goat­ing, racism and anti­semitism. How do you keep the parts of your iden­ti­ty that you want to love, in a soci­ety so hate­ful? Orringer ques­tions build­ing iden­ti­ty in rela­tion to race and sex­u­al­i­ty that, sad­ly, still feel rel­e­vant. A cen­tral char­ac­ter strug­gles with hav­ing a black father and spends most of his life pass­ing as white. Iron­i­cal­ly, the brav­ery of those fight­ing anti­semitism and try­ing to escape is what makes the char­ac­ter want to own their iden­ti­ty. This book is not just about flee­ing from the Nazis, but also from your true self, and how peo­ple in any time in his­to­ry can run away from their iden­ti­ties in pur­suance of a per­son­hood that feels more in-line with the mainstream.

One of the nicer sur­pris­es of the book is the beau­ti­ful rela­tion­ship between two gay men. While the read­er is held by the sus­pense of which char­ac­ters will sur­vive the war and escape Europe and which will not, they are even more cap­ti­vat­ed by whether this almost impos­si­ble rela­tion­ship blos­som­ing in the midst of con­cen­tra­tion camps and air raids will sur­vive, as well. The char­ac­ters are robust and well-drawn, which allow the read­er to care about and hope for their hap­pi­ness. The invest­ment in her char­ac­ters as well as the rich detailed world Orringer paints, makes this excep­tion­al­ly writ­ten nov­el dif­fi­cult to put down.

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