“Masterfully crafted and impossible to put down … a testament to the enduring power of art, and love, in any form.”
—Entertainment Weekly

The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer (Knopf), an incredible, important work of fiction with a touch of humor, is in some ways a Holocaust story, but more than that, it poses the question, is one person’s life more valuable than another’s? This survival story is about the Jews, the artists and their art, the people of France, and about prospering in your own skin, having a meaningful purpose and living your truth.

Orringer packs a punch with a multileveled, engaging story. Varian Fry is a concerned American who dedicates himself to saving famous artists by assisting in their often difficult and convoluted departure from France during the war. While getting proper paperwork and orchestrating possible escape routes by water or through mountains, with authorities on his tail, Fry remains focused on the job he has been given.

Except when he is focused on his clandestine, electric relationship with his old college lover, Grant, who is also in France searching for his current lover’s son. With a wife back in New York, Fry is torn between the traditional life he could have with Eileen and the honest but difficult life he would have with Grant. And Grant is struggling, too, as he has a secret about himself he has revealed to no one but Fry and he is considering the big reveal, which will have major repercussions.

With the nerve-wracking rescue missions, and the compelling, hot love story, there is still yet another focus — Fry is handpicking who gets to leave the country and he faces a conflict over executing an escape plan for either a well-known artist or an unknown young man who is important to his lover. How do we place a value on each life? Is it OK for Fry to save artists while sacrificing others? If only one can be saved, who is to decide?

A QUESTION AS RELEVANT TODAY AS IT WAS THEN

Varian Fry with American Relief Center associate Miriam Davenport, c. 1940

This moral question is not unique, and today, as we battle Covid-19, many hospitals have had to choose who gets the ventilator — a younger person or an older person? A black person or a white person? Our government must decide which states get emergency funding, what businesses get financial support. Who should get tested first? Health care workers, elderly people, residents of lower-income neighborhoods?

One could argue that any life that gets saved is a victory, but the question of worthiness remains. Fry has good intentions, and in the novel, when someone from the French government accuses him of assisting Jews, anti-Nazis, degenerate Negroid artists and sexual inverts, Fry says, “If I don’t help them, no one will.”

Inspired by the courageous, real-life Varian Fry, Orringer tells the story of an American who risked his life to help Jewish artists and their art escape Nazi-occupied France. With the characters’ quests to live lives that are true and honest, and the rescue mission focused on singling out special people, the story begs the question, whose life is worth saving?

With appearances by Marc Chagall, Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim, sophisticated prose and descriptive storytelling, this serious and occasionally humorous account of a difficult mission kept me coming back for more.

Buy this book!

Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Julie Orringer is the author of two award-winning books: The Invisible Bridge, a New York Times bestselling novel, and How to Breathe Underwater, a collection of stories; her new novel, The Flight Portfolio, tells the story of Varian Fry, the New York journalist who went to Marseille in 1940 to save writers and artists blacklisted by the Gestapo. All her work has been published by Alfred A. Knopf, and her books have been translated into twenty languages. Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Granta Book of the American Short Story and The Scribner Anthology of American Short Fiction. She is the winner of the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and children, and is at work on a novel set in New Orleans.