Excerpt from The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Flight Portfolio

by Julie Orringer

The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer X
The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer
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  • First Published:
    May 2019, 576 pages

    Jun 2020, 576 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Natalie Vaynberg
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There was, it turned out, no train to the village where the Chagalls lived: one of many complications he'd failed to anticipate. He had to pay a boy with a motorbike to run him up from the station at Cavail­lon, ten miles at a brainshaking pace along a narrow rutted road. On either side rose ochre hills striated with grapevines and lavender and olive trees; overhead, a blinding white-veined sky. The smell was of the boy's leather jacket and of charred potatoes, exhalate of his clever homemade fuel. At the foot of the village the boy parked in a shadow, accepted Varian's francs, and tore off into the distance before Varian could arrange a ride back.

The streets of Gordes, carved into a sunstruck limestone hill above the Luberon Valley, offered little in the way of shade. He would have given anything to be back in Marseille with a glass of Aperol before him, watching sailors and girls, gangsters and spice vendors, parading the Canebière. The Chagalls had only agreed to see him on the basis that he not bring up the prospect of their emigration. But what other subject was there? The Nazis had taken Paris months ago, they were burning books in the streets of Alsace, they could send any refugee over the border at will. At least the Chagalls had agreed; that was something. But as he reached the house, an ancient Catholic girls' school on the rue de la Fontaine Basse, he found himself fighting the urge to flee. His credentials, if anyone examined them, amounted to a fanatic's knowledge of European history, a desire to get out from behind his desk in New York, and a deep frustration with his isola­tionist nation. And yet this was his job; he'd volunteered for it. What was more, he believed he could do it. He raised his hand and knocked.

An eye appeared in the brass circlet of the peephole, and a girl in a striped apron opened the door. She listened, strangling her index finger with one dark curl, as he stated his name and mission. Then she ushered him down a corridor and out into a courtyard, where a stone path led to a triangle of shade. There, at a bare wooden table, Chagall and his wife sat at lunch: the painter in his smock, his hair swept back from his forehead in silver waves; Bella in a close-fitting black dress too hot for the day.

"Ah, Monsieur Fry," Chagall said, rising to meet him. The painter's eyes were large and uncommonly sharp, his expression one of bemuse­ment. "You've come after all. I thought you might. You won't forget our agreement, will you?"

"All I want is your company for an hour."

"You're lying, of course. But you lie charmingly."

They sat together at the table, Bella on Varian's left, the painter to his right—he, Varian Fry, sitting down with the Chagalls, with Chagall, author of those color-saturated visions, those buoyant bridal couples and intelligent-eyed goats he'd seen in hushed rooms at the Museum of Modern Art. Bella filled a plate with brown hard-crusted miche, soft cheese, sardines crackling with salt; she handed it across the table, assessing Varian in silence.

"Had you been here a few days ago, we would have had tomatoes," Chagall said. "A farmer brings them up to the market on Thursdays. I'm sorry we don't have more to offer. The bread's a little hard on the tooth, I'm afraid, but c'est la guerre!"

"This is lavish," Varian said. "You're too kind."

"Not at all. We like to share what we have." He gestured around him at the bare yellow stones, the rough benches, the shock of gold-green hillside visible through an archway in the wall. "As you see, we're living a quiet and retired life in our little dacha. No one will bother us here at Gordes."

"You have a studio," Varian said. "You're still producing work. That's what makes you dangerous."

"Our daughter says the same," Bella said. "She's been saying it for months. But you understand, Monsieur Fry—my husband's reputa­tion will protect him. Vichy wouldn't dare touch us."

Excerpted from The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer. Copyright © 2019 by Julie Orringer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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