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The Art Student's War [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Brad Leithauser

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Book Description

Nov. 3 2009
In The Art Student’s War, his sixth novel, Brad Leithauser has brought off a double feat of imagination: a keen and affectionate rendering of an artist as a young woman and a loving historical portrait of a now-vanished Detroit in its heyday.

The story opens on a sunny spring day as a pretty woman, in a crowded wartime city, climbs aboard a streetcar. She is heading home, where another war—a domestic war—is about to erupt.

The year is 1943. Our heroine, Bianca Paradiso, is eighteen and an art student. She goes by Bea with friends and family, but she is Bianca in that world of private ambition where she dreams of creating canvases deserving of space on a museum’s walls. She is determined to observe everything, and there is much to see in a thriving, sleepless city where automobile production has been halted in favor of fighter planes and tanks, and where wounded soldiers have begun to appear with disturbing frequency.

The glorious pursuit of art and the harrowing pursuit of military victory eventually merge when Bea is asked to draw portraits of wounded young soldiers in a local hospital. Suddenly, bewilderingly, she must deal with lives maimed at their outset, and with headlong romantic yearnings that demand more of her than she feels prepared to give. And she must do so at a time when dangerous revelations—emotional detonations—are occurring in her own family.

Rich, humorous, and grippingly written, The Art Student’s War is Leithauser’s finest novel to date—a view both global and intimate in its portrayal of one family caught up in the personal and national drama of the Second World War.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (Nov. 3 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307271110
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307271112
  • Product Dimensions: 24.3 x 16.7 x 3.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 862 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,563,974 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


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.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.1 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Imagining Detroit in the 40s and 50s Feb. 27 2010
By Richard A. Jenkins - Published on
Leithauser recreates a period that takes Detroit from WWII into the mid-1950s. The story revolves around a girl and her family as she enters adult hood and begins a family. The story includes many elements that often aren't associated with such an "innocent" era, such as race relations, mental illness, infidelity, premarital sex, unplanned pregnancy, and homosexuality. Anyone who has tried to learn about their family history will recognize that all these things were part of that era (not to mention eras long before). The story has a sudden break near the middle and although Leithauser successfully re-establishes the momentum of the book, the abrupt transition seems un-necessary. The book mentions real places, often without explanation. People who have been to Detroit or lived nearby will know Hudson's, Grinnell's, and Sanders, but others won't. Ditto the neighborhoods and thoroughfares, although oddly Leihauser chooses fictional streets for Bianca's homes. Beyond these quibbles, the story is one that follows a young woman as her world broadens simply by taking the streetcar to art school, meeting people who were nothing like those who had populated her world on the East Side of Detroit. WWII is both near and far, but became most real to Bianca when she began sketching portraits of soldiers who were convalescing at hospital that had been commandeered by the Army. Art school brought her a relationship with Ronny, a child of privilege while her drawing brings her into an equally unusual relationship with a doomed, intellectual young man.

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.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Three-fifths excellent; forget the rest Feb. 5 2010
By J. Rosenberg - Published on
I enjoyed the first 273 pages of this book very much. Bianca had an artist's view of the world which was different and fascinating. Her family life and the lives of the other characters were well described and different, too. Her art school days, boyfriends and volunteer work drawing soldiers' portraits are lively and interesting to read about.

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.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Elegy For Detroit...And More June 14 2010
By Nicholas Puner - Published on
I hadn't read any of Brad Leithauser's fiction before The Art Student's War. I was interested in this book because of family connections to Detroit at a time it was already past its glory days. The New York Times review was very positive.

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.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sad to see it end Feb. 7 2010
By Anita C. Dudek - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It is always bittersweet when you read the last page of a novel you have really enjoyed. The Art Student's War invites you into a family, its trials and triumphs and makes you remember your own family's stories. The author, also a poet, has a wonderfully graphic way of using words to put the reader into the story. I look forward to reading all of the other works of Brad Leithauser.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Art Student's War Feb. 1 2013
By Nola Figen - Published on
Verified Purchase
My introduction to Leithauser's prose was greatly disappointing. There was some just plain bad writing in there. The plot was interesting.

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