The Flight Portfolio

Written by Julie Orringer
Review by Larry Zuckerman

In 1940, Varian Fry, American scholar and historian, arrives in Marseilles from New York facing an impossible task: pry a handful of gifted refugees out of Vichy France and get them to safety. These unfortunates, mostly stateless Jews, belong to the intellectual and artistic cream of Europe—Marc Chagall, André Breton, and Walter Benjamin, for starters. But the collaborationist Vichy regime would just as soon deliver them to their German overlords, and American officialdom, patently anti-Semitic, wants no part of saving anyone.

The first hundred pages or so of The Flight Portfolio will take your breath away. Orringer writes like a Muse, and she immerses the reader in wartime Marseilles, the perilous, clandestine work, the constant obstacles, and how out of touch Varian’s stateside supervisors are. She also pays heed to the moral problem of rescuing luminaries while leaving ordinary innocents to die.

But after the first hundred pages and before the last hundred, the novel loses its way. Though each rescue poses unique obstacles, the process resembles a revolving door—a refugee enters, gets stuck, exits, and another one comes along. To add context, Orringer invents Elliott Grant, a former lover of Varian’s from their Harvard days. Renewing their affair shows Varian that he empathizes with the refugees, in part, because he too must live underground, as a bisexual man. Fair enough; but he takes forever to grasp this, and when he finally does, the earth fails to move. It’s as though saving lives from murderous bigotry weren’t enough, and that what really matters, the point of the whole exercise, is a love affair.

Consequently, I suspect that historical fiction fans will enjoy the descriptions but soon lose patience; I think this is a book for literary readers who enjoy prose above all.