The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer is set in Nazi-occupied France where the hero of the novel, Varian Fry, an American journalist, spearheads rescue operations aimed at the secure removal of crème de la crème of European thinkers & artists to the States. At a time when political intrigue and hostility is peaking, Fry undertakes the mission at the behest of Emergency Rescue Committee whose endeavour is to save the 200 most imperilled. But the looming question (one that intermittently presents itself in the form of a piercing conscience to Fry) is which life deserves to be saved and how does one put a value tag on someone’s life.
Fry is supported in this grand undertaking by a competent group of people who boast of different strengths and are united by their will to prevail. Perhaps his most indispensable ally is Henry Bingham who supplies documents and visas, mostly fraudulent, to guarantee a safe passage through the various travel routes that Fry’s clients employ. But at the heart of the novel with a cause so Herculean is something very personal and raw.
Orringer renders the novel marvellously intimate by laying bare Fry’s mind which experiences a jolt when a chance encounter leads him to his sweetheart from college days, Elliot Grant. Painfully hiding behind the mask of normalcy is Fry’s deviance, one that he has tried to suppress for more than half of his life by diving deep in the heterosexual world of marriage and domesticity. The turmoil outside is mirrored in Fry’s unbecoming and refashioning as his time in France quickly transforms into a time-space hollowed out from the real world, which seems to have receded to the background somewhere.
Amidst the tricks of the heart and adventures of the mind is Grant’s bid to save the prodigious young son of his present lover who is being hunted by the Nazi intelligence. He solicits Fry’s help and what follows is a quest that exceeds beyond the physical, leading to an unraveling that neither Grant nor Fry are prepared for.
The book draws a portrait of Marseille that comes alive in all its splendour, a Marseille that breathes, swallows, sniffs and often groans under the weight of the biggest tragedy unleashed by the human race on its own kind. The forgotten American hero is depicted with great elegance and empathy that had perhaps not been conferred upon him in his lifetime despite the import of his altruistic work at a time when it was most needed and least conducive.