The Art Student's War Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Nov 3 2009
No Kindle device required. Download one of the Free Kindle apps to start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, and computer.
To get the free app, enter your e-mail address or mobile phone number.
A New York Times Notable Book
A Library of Michigan Notable Book
Kirkus Reviews Best Books of the Year
"A sweeping, multilayered and ultimately beautiful story about one woman's search for authenticity, community and passion in a city that once promised so much." —New York Times Book Review
“Leithauser offers a vivid historical portrait of Detroit in its prime as he affectionately chronicles the life of a young female artist.” —Chicago Tribune
“A loving, elegiac caress of a city used to rougher treatment. . . . This playful, erudite and emotional writer travels lightly and far and never in the quite the direction one would have predicted.” —The New York Review of Books
“A homage of depth and texture to the churning wonder that was Detroit in its golden age. . . . A living, breathing vision.” —The Washington Post
“Richly woven . . . sumptuous. . . . Some passages in this latest work beg to be read over and over, so perfect are the form and texture of the words.” —Dallas Morning News
"[Leithauser] replicates a world where such qualities as innocence, decency and optimism thrive and breathe, and he does it less by building an imaginary Nostalgialand of the mind than by guiding us through wartime Detroit. . . . It's not that the world of the book is virginally chaste—it is, after all, a home to war, the wounded, alcoholism, regret, cancer and race riots—but that it's viewed through such stubbornly forgiving and optimistic eyes." —Toronto Star
“Timely and engrossing. . . . The book creates a vividly constructed world.” —Boston Globe
“A peak achievement. . . . If ever there was one, Leithauser is a triple-threat man as novelist, poet, and critic.” —Commonweal
“Bianca is an altogether charming character. Blessed with the eyes of an artist, she drinks in the visual details of her city, mentally painting all the time. . . . Bianca Paradiso’s city is no paradise and never has been, but it does turn out to be a marvelous art studio—for the art of living.” —Christian Century
“A fresh, captivating coming-of-age story. . . . The novel's portrait of wartime fervor is . . . haunting. . . . Superb portraits of an endearing heroine and a cluster of finely observed secondary characters backlit by history.” —Kirkus Reviews
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
Brad Leithauser was born in Detroit and graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is the author of five previous novels, a novel in verse, five volumes of poetry, two collections of light verse, and a book of essays. Among his many awards and honors are a MacArthur Fellowship and, in 2005, the induction by the president of Iceland into the Order of the Falcon for his writings about Nordic literature. He is a professor in the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He and his wife, Mary Jo Salter, divide their time between Baltimore, Maryland, and Amherst, Massachusetts.See all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Then on page 275, everything changed. Suddenly the narrator is telling us that Bea is ill, she has a raging fever. Then, instead of being in Bea's point of view, we are with her Uncle Dennis as he drives frantically from Cleveland to Detroit to serve as Bea's doctor. This chapter is a mess.
Next, on page 275, we are back with Bea. Nine years have past. She is married to Grant (we never find out how they came to be married, despite all the detail in this book about every other little thing) and she has twin six-year-old boys. It's downhill from here. Much of what happened in the first 274 pages is rehashed. Everything has become mundane, a nineteen-fifties housewife's tale. Bea is no longer mysterious. She wears pedal pushers and goes to the grocery store.
Sheesh! I am soooo disappointed. I am on page 447, with a little help from skimming, and I am bored to death. No suspense -- during that strange middle chapter we were informed of all kinds of things that were to happen in Bea's life. No artsy descriptions or unusual characters. Everyone is ordinary and every event predictable.
Ich. I feel cheated.
I cannot agree. This is a cumbersome, highly repetitious novel that, for me, never achieves a life of its own. The characters, like those in the representational painting that is so frequently mentioned, seem to embody roles rather than live lives. All of them seem one-dimensional, stick figures. Whatever it is that Leithauser has to say, he says it at prodigious length. It is as if, having completed his work of the previous day, he has forgotten what he did. The book reminded me of the old New York Times in which every article would, seemingly, begin at the creation of the world before getting to the event at hand.
It is neither the ripping good yarn of a master story teller nor a work of surpassing conception and execution by a masterly writer. Rather it seemed to me to be a vast connect-the-dots exercise that would have benefited from critical and exacting editing.
In truth, "The Art Student's War" (which begins in late May 1943 on a Woodward Avenue streetcar in which a young woman returning home from art school catches the eye of a wounded, black-haired GI with matinee-idol looks hobbling on crutches as he disembarks) reads more like a play with dashes of magical realism interspersed. The principal players in this novel are in the Paradiso family, from which, Bianca, the oldest child of 3 (known affectionately as "Bea" or "Bia" by her father Ludovico, an Italian emigrant who had arrived in the U.S. 30 years earlier with his parents) stands out. She's an aspiring artist at the Institute Midwest, which specialized in Fine Arts and Industrial Arts. One day, Bea's teacher offers her the opportunity to make visits to one of the city's largest hospitals, and draw portraits of the wounded soldiers there, as well as offer them some good cheer. For Bea, who is a highly emotional sort, this presents a big challenge. But one she does not shrink from because it also offers an escape from a family that seems poised to fall apart.
Bea is attuned to the rhythms of a wartime city, which, while prospering, is very much in flux. She summons up the courage to face these wounded men and bring some joy back into their lives through capturing their essence in pencil and charcoal. She makes the acquaintance in art school of Ronny Olsson, someone she had fancied for his looks and debonair style, whom she soon learns is the scion of one of Detroit's wealthiest families, and a talented artist in his own right. Frankly, as the novel wore on, I never really felt sure about Ronny Olsson. Sometimes, he rankled me. Other times, he seemed indecisive in his "relationship" with Bia (whom he insisted on calling Bianca) --- and she with him. There is also another short-lived relationship Bia had (virtually concurrent with the one she had with Ronny) with one of the wounded soldiers whose portrait she had rendered in charcoal. All the while, the author gives the reader some feel for Detroit, though he never seemed to get into the heart and guts of the city for me. Passages like the following, while heartening to read, ultimately left me wanting more:
"... the whole of Detroit was a single machine. ... This was the town where the Iliad met Henry Ford. The assembly lines were running twenty-four hours a day, the overburdened railroads were clanking in and out of the city, and she, Bianca Paradiso, portfolio under her arm, was a piece of it all: ..."
"No city on earth had ever fought a war the way this city was fighting: it had become democracy's true arsenal. It was bearing the burden of a dream born perhaps in Ancient Greece: the governed shall govern. And future historians would recognize that the War's authentic center had lain not in London, or even in Washington, but here ... in Michigan, in DETROIT."
I admit to perhaps having overly high expectations about this novel, upon which the author failed to deliver. He touches upon the June 20th, 1943 race riot (one of the worst in the city's history -- I remember well some of what my Mom --- who was in her early teens in 1943 --- told me about that tragic event) only sketchily. I thought, from what the back cover had hinted at that the riot itself would play a prominent part in the novel. That simply didn't happen. Instead the reader witnesses the ups and downs of a family which reads like a melodrama whose parts don't always mix well. As a reader, I felt I could see the rotors, nuts and bolts of the novel, which tended to obscure the novel itself at times. For example, Chapter XXV should have been left out - period.
Nevertheless, I am glad to have read this novel. I'm now in search of the novel this spring that will thrill and absorb me, leaving me wanting MORE.
The relationship with Ronny opens Bianca's world both in terms of art and the opportunities that come with a wealthy family. Family is a key part of the book. Bianca's family is at the center of the book, but other families take on importance, particularly Ronny's. Bianca's Uncle Dennis emerges as the true head of her family. He quietly prods and pulls strings and makes things happen for her parents and siblings. He also manages to provide a solution when Bianca's mother imagines that her husband is really in love with Dennis' wife (her sister). Bianca's mother lives in a world where she is driven to eccentricities like hording candy and stealing small things form neighborhood stores. She was a seemingly inconsolable, distracted person who regularly burnt dinner, and seemed peeved by problems that she wouldn't discuss. Bianca's father was more avuncular, but also troubled with sharing his family with such a puzzling, unhappy woman. Unlike her serious sister Edith and her war playing brother, Bianca seems more open to people an experience, as well as less sure of the direction for her life. Ultimately, she marries well, although into an unhappy family, and begins to raise children whose equanimity is amazing to her. Leithauser excels, particularly in the beginning, at giving us the small details of daily life that build the story--Bianca's brother playing war, the smells and tastes on bland 1940s food, and the dustiness of streetcars in the pre-airconditioning era. Unlike many short story writers, Leithauser doesn't end the story with "O Henry" twists or sudden, melodramatic exits. The story is drawn together but in a natural way, but one that wasn't that fully resolved. Instead, we see Bianca and her family moving on to the next steps of their lives.