The Flight Portfolio

by Julie Orringer

Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson

The Flight Portfolio is based on the life of Varian Fry, an American man who went to Vichy France in 1940 to head the Emergency Rescue Committee, which helped Jewish artists and writers emigrate to the U.S. to escape the Nazis. 

Fry faced worsening difficulties and feared his skills and experience were not up to the job. Some of the artists he wanted to help, like Marc Chagall, refused to believe the danger was serious enough to justify leaving their homes. The U.S. limited the number of refugees they would accept. Passports allowing Jews to leave France became harder to obtain. As the Nazi hold on France tightened, more Jews were sent to concentration camps. Fry and his team also risked arrest. And if that were not enough, a moral dilemma added to his anxiety: How could he justify turning away Jews not on his priority list? Did their relative lack of talent make them undeserving of rescue?

A fictional character, Elliott Grant, intensifies the central theme. The novel imagines the two men were close friends as Harvard students but became estranged after Fry decided to marry. In France, Grant reappears with the force of a blow, reawakening emotions that could expose secrets dangerous to them both. But when Grant asks him to save a friend's son, Fry finds it impossible to say no. The Nazis are pursuing this young man, Grant says, because the U.S. could exploit his brilliance in physics to win the war.

Orringer's writing is a deft, transparent window into her characters' lives. If anything interrupts the reader's immersion in the story, it's probably amazement at how seamlessly fact and fiction are joined. An author's note clarifies the boundaries; readers willing to accept a spoiler or two can skip ahead to find out how much of the story is grounded in fact—quite a lot, it turns out, including the general idea behind the role of the fictional Grant. (2019, 562 pages including an Author's Note)

More about The Flight Portfolio at Powell's Books or The Book Depository

Other historical novels about the plight of Jews during the Nazi occupation of France:

Lisette's List by Susan Vreeland (2014), about a Paris woman who, shortly before WWII, must give up her dream of becoming an art gallery apprentice to move to a small town in Provence, where she meets the Chagalls. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure (2013), about an architect asked to design a secret hiding place for a wealthy Jewish man in Nazi-occupied Paris. More info

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007), about a contemporary American journalist who visits France and learns the terrible secret her French husband's family have been hiding since the German occupation of Paris. More info

Nonfiction about Varian Fry:

A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry by Sheila Isenberg (2001). More info

A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry by Andy Marino (1999). More info

Surrender on Demand by Varian Fry (1945), Fry's memoir of his work to save prominent Jews in occupied France. More info


Varian Fry at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website

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