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book review

Taut, complex tale of a WWII hero in occupied France

(jean-françois martin for the boston globe)

Julie Orringer’s magnificent second novel, after her much lauded “The Invisible Bridge,’’ 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.

The action begins in 1935, when real life, young American editor and eventual hero Varian Fry comes to Marseille, which would in a few years be under Vichy rule, as a volunteer for a privately organized mission called the Emergency Rescue Committee, which has been sanctioned by Eleanor Roosevelt herself. The goal of Fry’s group is to get prominent writers and artists — many of them Jews — who are considered dissidents by the Gestapo, out of the country even as the Nazi’s arrest lists mushroom and the Holocaust slithers ever nearer.

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But not all the artists want to be saved. Marc Chagall insists on staying, because he refuses to believe that his beloved country would ever turn on him. More importantly, an “artist must bear witness,’’ he insists. “He cannot turn away, even if he wants to.”

There are, however, other ways of bearing witness, of making America take note of the suffering of refugees, and of spurring it to enter the war. A so-called Flight Portfolio is put together: 52 pieces of original works by major artists to be smuggled out and shown in America at the Museum of Modern Art (thanks to Peggy Guggenheim) to raise awareness and needed funds. The art is chilling — a woman with her hair in flames, a child skeleton — but like Picasso’s famous “Guernica,’’ this is meant to open eyes and spark rage.

The roster of names Fry encounters in France is astounding. Besides Chagall, there is Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and more. But a thorny issue emerges. They can only get 200 out. How do they choose the lucky ones? Fry is urged to consider a young genius, Tobias Katznelson, who is supposedly high on the Nazi’s list of dangerous people. Lev Zilberman, an older and important painter, insists that he should be rescued first, that Tobias is a fraud — and that they will all pay dearly for it, especially Zilberman. But what is the truth?

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Although deeply concerned with politics, at its heart, the novel is a love story between Fry and a fictional and mysterious lover, Grant Elliot. Fry and Elliott loved each other during their college days, but Fry knew the price tag that came along with being gay. Wanting a regular life, needing to blend in, he marries a woman, Eileen. They have an open marriage, but Fry finds himself dissatisfied, yearning for something he believes he cannot have. When he comes to Marseille and re-encounters Elliott, sparks are blazingly reignited, discombobulating Fry so that he is unsure what to do. “All my life I’ve enjoyed perfect privilege,’’ Fry tells Elliott. “American, rich, Protestant, Harvard-educated.” He says that he doesn’t know “how to live as what I am,’’ but Elliott points him to a difficult truth: “You’re already doing it.”

Like everything in “The Flight Portfolio,’’ there are deeper levels of meaning. What does it mean to be truly yourself, especially when revealing who you are can be a matter of life or death? Elliott and Fry are not just hiding that they are gay. Elliott has been lying to Columbia, where he teaches, and he has also lied to Yale and Harvard. He’s a Jew, yes, but he also has African-American blood from his father, grounds for dismissal. Elliott is lying about his rescue efforts, too, in particular, his real reason for championing the rescue of young Tobias over the artist Zilberman. But he’s not the only one harboring great guilt, because Fry is grappling with a terrible secret of his own.

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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: How do we stand up against injustice? When is a person’s life worth the sacrifice of our own safety? And how do we become who we are most meant to be?

These are surely questions that are as important now, in our difficult times, as they were back when the Nazi jackboots were sounding their alarm.

THE FLIGHT PORTFOLIO

By Julie Orringer

Knopf, 562 pp., 29.85

An earlier version of this review incorrectly reported when the collaborationist Vichy regime began. It ran from 1940-1944.

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Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, “With or Without You,’’ will be published by Algonquin in 2020.