The Art Student's War

The Art Student's War

4.1 6
by Brad Leithauser

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The Art Student's War is Brad Leithauser's finest novel to date, deeply moving in its portrayal of a young aspiring artist and her immigrant family during Detroit’s wartime heyday.

The year is 1943. Bianca Paradiso is a pretty and ambitious eighteen-year-old studying to be an artist while her bustling, thriving hometown turns from mass-producing

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The Art Student's War is Brad Leithauser's finest novel to date, deeply moving in its portrayal of a young aspiring artist and her immigrant family during Detroit’s wartime heyday.

The year is 1943. Bianca Paradiso is a pretty and ambitious eighteen-year-old studying to be an artist while her bustling, thriving hometown turns from mass-producing automobiles to rolling out fighter planes and tanks. For Bianca, national and personal conflicts begin to merge when she is asked to draw portraits of the wounded young soldiers who are filling local hospitals. Suddenly she must confront lives maimed at their outset as well as her own romantic yearnings, and she must do so at a time when another war—a war within her own family—is erupting.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

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

Dean Bakopoulos
In the Detroit native Brad Leithauser's sixth novel, The Art Student's War, set in the mid-20th-century Motor City, there is a fair amount of hazy, somber nostalgia, but there's also 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 and now produces so little…this is a skillful novel. Often Leithauser's books are brilliant but not quite accessible; but The Art Student's War is straightforward and engaging. In fact, it is one of the finest novels about Detroit's history to come along in years. With its generous and cleareyed vision of the city's grand past, it will particularly resonate with readers who remember the glory days of the American Rust Belt.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Leithauser's sixth novel is the story of Bea Paradiso, a character modeled after the author's late mother-in-law. Early in the story, Bea volunteers to draw portraits of wounded soldiers during World War II. Given the novel's title, one might expect this unique scenario to be the premise of the book, but the few pages devoted to Bea's sketches are overwhelmed by the melodrama that dominates the rest of the story. Much is made of the rivalry between Bea's mother and her aunt Grace, which culminates into a ridiculous argument over a bathing suit malfunction. Then, of course, there is Bea's romantic life; her affections are torn between the glamorous Ronny Olsen and the bookish Henry Vander Akker. However, Henry lures Bea into an empty house leading to a strange and muddied rape scene. Despite this mishap, when Henry is killed in battle, Bea remembers him as a martyr and playfully refers to him as her "virginity-stealer." The story then inexplicably skips several years into the future, where Bea is married to Grant, a lawyer who appears out of nowhere in the novel. The second half of the book is largely nostalgic toward the characters of Bea's past-a less-than-appealing undertaking, considering that the endeavors of the first half were abandoned so unceremoniously.
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Library Journal
Leithauser (A Few Corrections; The Friends of Freeland) delivers a solid sixth novel that historical fiction buffs will enjoy. Bea Paradisio, a sensitive art student, comes of age in Detroit during World War II. The dramas that rage on the world stage become, in Leithauser's skillful hands, the crucible that forges Bea's personality as she struggles to make sense of both larger cultural changes and the sudden dissolution of her family's tightly knit bonds. Readers who enjoy domestic fiction will grow to love the quirky Paradisios and mourn for them as each character's tragic flaw slowly works its way to the surface of the plot. Detroit itself is the most vivid character Leithauser creates, lavishing loving accuracy on the streetcars, drugstores, restaurants, and other landmarks of the thriving, throbbing metropolis. Though the novel's overall aura is one of gentle nostalgia, Leithauser doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the accurate, albeit bigoted, language of the period or tough issues like mental illness. VERDICT A cautiously optimistic look at The Way We Were, for those who remember or want to learn more.—Leigh Anne Vrabel, Carnegie Lib. of Pittsburgh
Kirkus Reviews
Fresh, captivating coming-of-age story from poet and novelist Leithauser (A Few Corrections, 2001, etc.). Detroit, 1943. In a crowded streetcar, a young soldier on crutches gallantly insists on a pretty young woman taking the one vacant seat. It's a Norman Rockwell moment, and Bea Paradiso, an 18-year-old art student, will cherish it. Her family considers her overemotional; certainly she is ardent and impressionable. Soon she will find an outlet for her patriotism, visiting the hospital to sketch wounded soldiers, giving them back their "prewar faces." The visits provide an escape from home, in turmoil since Bea's deranged mother accused her sister, sweet Aunt Grace, of trying to steal her husband Vico, an immigrant building contractor. The accusation is absurd-Grace has her own wonderfully happy marriage-but it will have dire consequences. Bea also finds respite in the company of fellow art student Ronny Olsson, handsome, talented, provocative and heir to the city's largest drugstore chain. Their first kiss is a riot of colors, appropriate for "two kids in love with painting." Then Bea's feelings are diverted toward another soldier, Henry Vanden Akker, a brilliant truth-seeking mathematician. Transcending cliche, Bea gives up her virginity the night before Henry returns to the war, though she knows (second sight) that he's doomed. After he does indeed die in a plane crash, fragile Bea seems headed for an early death herself, the victim of a flu epidemic and her shattered nerves. But Leithauser spares her, and another 200 pages show her, nine years later, happily married with twins. This allows the author more space to examine, with the perceptiveness of Anne Tyler, how families work, butthe novel's portrait of wartime fervor is so haunting that showing us Bea's later life, no matter how fulfilled, seems like adding a wing to an already perfect house. Superb portraits of an endearing heroine and a cluster of finely observed secondary characters backlit by history, their brilliance slightly dimmed in the lower-keyed Part Three. Author tour to Baltimore, Detroit, New England

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)

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chapter 1

When the streetcar halts at Woodward and Mack, the young soldier who climbs aboard with some difficulty—he looks new to his crutches—is surpassingly handsome. Everybody notices him. His hair, long for a soldier’s, is shiny black. His eyes are arrestingly blue. That gaze of his is slightly unnerving and suggests a sizable temper, maybe. Or maybe not, for the crooked grin he releases at seeing himself securely aboard is boyish and winsome. Everybody in this dusty car feels heartened by him. A nation capable of producing soldiers as stirring as this young soldier—how could it possibly lose the War?

Although she doesn’t allow herself to stare openly, nobody is more observant of the handsome wounded young soldier than someone called Bea, whose true name is Bianca: Bianca Paradiso. A tall girl wearing a red hat, she stands in the middle of the car. The War has been unfolding for what feels like ages and those tranquil days before the soldiers overran the streets seem to belong to her childhood. The olive drab and navy blue of the boys’ uniforms have reconstituted the palette of the city. Bea is an art student. She examines minutely the city’s streets and streetcars, parks and store-window displays and billboards, and of course its automobiles. Her teacher last quarter, Professor Evanman, spoke of automobiles as the city’s “blood vessels”— this is, after all, the Motor City—and he urged his students to view Detroit as “a living creature.” The advice struck powerfully: the city as a living creature. Bea is eighteen.

She cultivates these days an enhanced receptivity to color, including the heavy black of this soldier’s hair, and the hovering, weightless, gas-fire blue of his eyes, to say nothing of the emphatic fresh white of the plaster bandage encasing his left leg. Bea is heading home from a two-hour class in still-life painting. Her professor this term is Professor Manhardt, who would never counsel his students to contemplate anything automotive. Professor Manhardt is a purist. He, too, offers inspiring advice. An artist never stops mixing paint?.?.?. That’s one of Professor Manhardt’s maxims, and while heading home from class Bea typically entertains a drifting armada of colors without objects—big floating swatches and swirls of pigment.

Yes, servicemen’s uniforms have colored the city for a long time, but it’s only recently, in this sodden late spring of 1943, that you’ve begun to see many of the wounded. There’s a special light attending them, like El Greco’s figures. Each glimpse of a wounded soldier forces you into a fearful medical appraisal. How bad is he hurt? That’s always the first question in everybody’s mind. And Please, God, not too badly?.?.?. That’s the follow-up prayer. Please, God. Fortunately, nobody Bea personally knows has been wounded or killed, so far at least, although a high school classmate, Bradley Hake, has long been missing in action in the Philippines.

Well, this one, the very good-looking boy on the Woodward Avenue streetcar, isn’t hurt too badly. Though his leg is bandaged all the way above his knee, and though he grimaced on the car step, he exudes a brimming youthful well-being once aboard. It’s so good to be home, his grin declares. Good to be alive in a month in which, as the newspapers daily report, American boys by the hundreds are dying overseas. Yes, truly it is wonderful to be back in Detroit, on this last Friday in May, the twenty-eighth of May, after a record-breaking stretch of rainy days, riding a streetcar up Woodward Avenue, the city’s central thoroughfare, with a mixed crowd of people who are—men and women, white and colored—heading home for supper.

It’s approaching five o’clock and the streetcar is full, with recent arrivals like Bea left standing. Streetcars are always full, ever since the War started. Of course there’s not a chance in the world the soldier will be left standing. It’s only a matter of who’s to have the honor of first catching his eye and offering up a seat.

This privilege falls to a badly shaved, grizzled little man wearing a patched jacket and a tan corduroy cap. His hands, although scrubbed, are still grimed from a day at the factory. Bea observes everything. As he rises from his seat he instinctively doffs his tan cap, revealing a threadbare scalp on which a nasty-looking boil—his own modest wound—gleams painfully. If the young black-haired soldier had been his own flesh and blood, the grizzled little man couldn’t regard him with deeper paternal satisfaction. The man with the boil has been granted an opportunity both honorable and precious: the chance for a small but conspicuous display of patriotism.

The young soldier nods obligingly. He has a boy’s still-skinny neck, with an outsized, bobbing Adam’s apple. It isn’t just his crutches that make him gawky. If he weren’t so handsome, he might almost be silly-looking. He takes a step forward, on his crutches, halts and glances around the car. Decisively, his eye hooks Bianca Paradiso’s attentive eye.

And then—then, to the girl’s horror, to her crawling, incredulous, consummate horror—the soldier signals to her. She prays she’s mistaken, but there it is, undeniably: the soldier repeats the gesture and lifts a beckoning eyebrow.

No possible doubt what he intends: he means for Bea to occupy the seat vacated by the man with the tan corduroy cap. Instantly, Bea’s face blushes so intensely that her nose and forehead actually ache.

Everybody’s watching. It’s just as though the streetcar has halted. It’s as if the whole city has halted and everybody in Detroit is gaping at her, while she, so keenly susceptible to embarrassment, undergoes paralysis. She shakes her head once, vehemently, and with her free hand throws off a jerky motion of dismissal—a helpless, importunate gesture. Is she going to sit while the wounded soldier stands?

Don’t, her gesture says. It’s all she can say.

But resolution is written on the handsome soldier’s face. This boy isn’t about to retreat. Retreat? In recent months he has endured far too much to consider that. He has been shot at by absolute strangers, people doing their best to kill him, out in unimaginably strange lands. Is he now going to be fended off by a pretty girl in an odd red hat, standing in a Detroit streetcar with a notebook under her arm?

He continues to regard her with his charged blue glance, into which seemingly has entered a beseeching, indeed a vulnerable aspect. He is requesting a favor. Won’t she oblige him? Please? Or will she refuse him—refuse him a privilege she’d grant unthinkingly if he stood before her whole and unimpaired?

If he stood before her as the boy he used to be, not so very long ago, without crutches or bandages, wouldn’t she unhesitatingly take the offered seat?

The ghastly moment unfreezes itself, there is no way out except forward, and, stooping (she’s quite a tall girl, who tends to stoop accommodatingly), Bea slips into the empty seat. She plants her gaze on the gritty floor, where a couple of last-drag smokers have, on boarding, pitched cigarette butts. The true painter observes everything, and yet she cannot bear to meet anyone’s eyes. She vows not to look up again—not once—until her stop is reached.

It’s a pity Bea doesn’t look up, for the ensuing drama would naturally engage any artist’s eye. The delicate, tense pantomime of the handsome wounded soldier and the lanky, dark, strikingly pretty Italian-looking girl serves as a mere prelude. Once Bea has awkwardly swiveled, face aflame, into the offered seat, the rest of the car leaps into motion. Simultaneously, four, five, half a dozen men spring up, each volunteering a place for the soldier. He had their goodwill from the outset, of course, by dint of his uniform and his cheerfully wielded crutches. But something far more potent has been awakened: at the fatigued end of a hot day, and of a long week, he has restored for them the meaning of gallantry. They are abashed and upraised, and they all adore him.

Gaze steadily downcast, Bea holds true to her vow for two more stops. Her red hat is in her lap. She refers to it—a little joke—as her Hungarian beret. It’s neither Hungarian nor a beret; it’s something she picked up across the river, in Windsor, Canada. It’s made of bright red felt, almost scarlet, with a velvet rim of a different red, almost crimson. She’d chosen it after determining that it looked arty without looking too arty.

Nagging curiosity soon overcomes her, and she allows herself a few peeks out the window. The storefronts are, if possible, more patriotic than usual, in celebration of Decoration Day, which this year falls on a Sunday, two days from now. A holiday weekend is beginning, and the streetcar passes a movie theater advertising a two a.m. showing for defense workers, whose schedules might not otherwise allow a movie. The War has changed everything.

She permits herself a few darting glances at her fellow passengers. People are still peering at her. The soldier sits on the other side of the car. He has struck up a conversation with the colored woman beside him. Although Bea can’t hear what he’s saying, she appreciates the unself-conscious way he conducts the conversation. Bea can’t hear what the woman is saying either, although the phrase “My boy Hector” lifts into audibility. A moment later it surfaces again, “My boy Hector,” and a moment later. The handsome soldier nods attentively and cordially.

Because he seems so engrossed, Bea dares a full appraisal of his face. His eyelashes are long and luxuriant—evident even from here. His nose, prominent but fine-boned, with sharply contoured nostrils, calls out to be painted. (She worries, frequently, that her own nose is too long.) Suddenly, as if having sensed her gaze, the soldier throws her a glance . . . Bea drops her eyes.

This time, she keeps them on the floor for only one stop, and when she peeks upward her demure show of modesty proves sadly superfluous: a fat woman in a preposterous orange coat has posted herself directly between Bea and the soldier. Making the best of her obstructed view, Bea studies the soldier’s legs—the good one folded beneath him, the bad bandaged one, which he cannot bend, thrust out into the aisle. He has big feet, to match that big Adam’s apple.

The woman in the orange coat shuffles toward the back of the car and across the suddenly cleared vista the black-haired blue-eyed soldier stares straight into Bea’s eyes and grins.

So inviting is that smile—so seemingly innocent of the anguish he has inflicted—it seems a pity not to hold his glance. But Bea, flustered, again drops her eyes. She tries to think about the contents of her portfolio, today’s sketch of a hairbrush and a glass of soda water, but she cannot bring its reality to mind. And then—

Then something unfolds that she’s wholly unprepared for: the soldier stands. He is about to exit the car.

Before he does so, however, he has some unfinished business. Although Bea’s eyes are downcast, she feels his approach. And when he speaks— lightly, a little breathlessly—it’s as though she has heard that voice before: “Nice ridin’ with ya, miss,” he says.

Bea peers upward with a guilty frantic quickness, and this time, for a moment that opens into something far more amplitudinous than a mere moment, her eyes hold and negotiate his gaze. And this time, this time she uncovers more than genial innocence in his look. She finds hunger, and a wordless understanding. Bea experiences something never felt before—a new chapter in her life. It’s almost as though, until this afternoon, she’d never learned the trick of gazing into anybody’s eyes. It’s vertiginous, truly: her sensation of an instantaneous, fused, fated linkage. It’s as though she’s melting, but melting in one direction—his direction.

How long do they lock gazes? Once the connection is broken, there’s no saying, there’s only a belated recognition of his having moved on, and her tardy acknowledgment of gratitude, called out much too faintly: “Thank you, Soldier.”

She says nothing further, and once all the clocks on earth recommence, time grinds forward relentlessly: in just a few seconds, the soldier has maneuvered himself off the streetcar. Craning forward, Bea is able to see, as he makes his laborious way down the sidewalk, the crown of his bobbing dark-haired head and his profiled nose. And that’s all. Gone forever: the unreckonable glance that dropped so deeply into her own.

The streetcar clatters forward on its route, the soldier disappears into the bricks and asphalt of the city. The story cannot be finished before it has begun—can it?

“He didn’t even hear me thank him,” Bea says to herself. Though she’s whispering, she can hardly get the words out, for her throat’s a knot of aching emotions.

“He didn’t even hear me thank him,” she sighs once more, and this time, along with her remorse, she locates in the words a bittersweet beauty. Wasn’t the encounter perfect in its way? It’s one more poignant war story—one among millions of wartime poignancies—and Bea savors this sensation of having been enlisted in a sweeping modern military enterprise: she has shared something beautiful and touching with a handsome, unnamed, wounded soldier. She has plumbed the vulnerable eyes of somebody who just as easily might never have come back.

Everything changes—as it so often does—the moment she climbs down from the enclosure of the streetcar; time itself shifts, shifted. When, in the open air, she spoke the words once more, Bea felt a renewed sense of wistful impoverishment: “He didn’t even hear me thank him.” This time the phrase sounded dry and matter-of-fact, as though the soldier really did belong to the past tense and their story were over.

Eventually, Bea made her way down the only street she’d ever lived on, which had the oddest name of any street she knew: Inquiry. In all her novel reading, she’d never come upon its like. All the other neighborhood streets had streetlike names: Kercheval, Canton, Lafayette, Helen, Mount Elliott, Sylvester, Gratiot, Goethe, Mack?.?.?. Doubtless there was an explanation, but it seemed no one had made an inquiry about Inquiry; nobody in the neighborhood could explain why she was living on a street that—so she liked to declare— might as well be Question Mark Avenue.

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