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The Art Student's War by Brad Leithauser

The Art Student's War

by Brad Leithauser

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I appreciated this story whose main character Is based on the experience of the author's mother-in-law who served as a portrait artist for recovering soldiers during WWII. I especially appreciated the very specific sense of place and time the was almost another character within the story. Some of the writing was particularly beautiful; I was not surprised to see that the author is also a published poet. A worthy story, a little long in parts, but overall a satisfying read. ( )
  Lcwilson45 | Sep 7, 2014 |
I didn't think I would like The Art Student's War because I'm not a big fan of the overly dramatic. Within the first fifty pages Bianca Paradiso's family is rocked by scandal: her aunt accidentally reveals a breast when her bathing suit slips. The dynamics between the two families is never the same after that. Yes, I know the times are different now and you can almost expect to see a bare breast on a beach these days, but the amount of anguish the entire family suffers at the hands of this one mistake seems a little exaggerated...until I read on. First of all, mental illness plays a part here. And. And! And, I should have known better. Bianca's character has been melodramatic from the start. Once, she was moved to anxious tears because she regretted not talking to a soldier on a bus. She lamented he didn't hear her say thank you.
As the story deepens, and you get to know the characters better, Bianca rounds out to be a steadfast good girl with all the dreams and aspirations of becoming a worthy artist. Those dreams are first realized when she is asked to help with the war effort: to use her talents to draw portraits of wounded soldiers in the local hospital, the very hospital where she was born. It is here that she meets Henry. The relationship that blooms is complex and sets Bianca's Coming of age in motion.
Halfway through the book there is a weird break that is told from the perspective of Bea's uncle. It's a glimpse into the future and doesn't quite fit with the flow of the story. If you are paying attention, it gives away the plot and reveals more than it should. When we come back to Bea, she is a married woman with twin six year old sons. She has remained close to a few childhood friends, but is not the artist she used to be. Life goes on. Detroit is like another character in the book, growing along with Bea.

An added benefit of the Art Student's War is the art history lesson you get along the way. ( )
  SeriousGrace | May 21, 2014 |

Lordy. If this is the latest, greatest nostalgic look at Detroit as the city-it-was, then what is this world coming to??

Leithauser may be a well-renowned writing teacher and author, but I believe he has failed in a large way with this ode to his mother and her childhood in Detroit. I think it's safe to say that if you, an author, are going to write something coming from a deeply personal space, you better make sure you're able to step back and view it objectively after that first draft.

There are some truths here (the effect of industrialization, how the war affected those at home, etc.) but in general the overwhelming naivete of the main character is bloody wearing, and very quickly. Oh, the worst thing ever, my mother is a thief, oh, oh! Really? What if your mother were a murderer? Oh, war is hell, it's so hard to go to the hospital and draw portraits of the soldiers, it makes me physically ill sometimes, oh, oh! Really? How do think these mangled soldiers feel themselves?

Gawd. Just stupid, stupid writing. ( )
  khage | Apr 27, 2011 |
I became interested in this book because it was about Detroit (my hometown) and an art student (I was one too) and as I read on, the fact that it was about those things became like icing on the cake. It's the characters in The Art Student's War that really make the story so rich and wholesome and in the end we are humbled to know that all our transgressions and small familial battles can be just as damaging as the World at war, at least on a personal level. Leithauser has done a fabulous job with the city - I almost stopped reading in the first few pages when he describes the intersection of Mack and Woodward -- there is no Mack and Woodward I said, but indeed in my lifetime Mack at Woodward had become MLK Blvd and Woodward. Detroiters today forget how important the city once was. This is a book that will stick with me for a long time. ( )
  deborahk | Jan 18, 2011 |
This was a wonderful glimpse into Detroit during and after the war. The story was good but not as good as the historical detail. The writer was great, I would definitely read more by this author.
  nancj | Jul 21, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
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.

The novel opens brilliantly, in 1943, introducing the 18-year-old Bianca Paradiso (or Bea) as she encounters a wounded young soldier on a Detroit streetcar. The recently returned soldier hobbles aboard the crowded streetcar on crutches, and another man rises quickly, patriotically offering the soldier his seat. The soldier, handsome, stoic and blue-eyed, in turn looks at Bea and motions for her to take the vacated seat. “Bea’s face blushes so intensely that her nose and forehead actually ache.”
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307271110, Hardcover)

A Q&A with Brad Leithauser

Question: You've truly written a love letter to Detroit. You mention in your Author's Note that you felt "a strong sense that [The Art Student's War] must serve as a tribute... to Detroit itself, my beleaguered and beloved hometown, in all its clanking, gorgeous heyday." Why did you write this book and how did it come about?

Brad Leithauser: When friends would ask about the book I was writing, I'd tell them that it was an attempt to convince myself that the world pre-existed me. This was my joking way of expressing a serious ambition: to write about a city that had, in many ways, vanished by the time I came along. I was born in Detroit in the fifties, and my book opens in Detroit in 1943. This is really my parents' world, which I knew chiefly through family lore, old photographs, and--as I became deeply enmeshed in my novel--a day-to-day reading of The Detroit News on microfilm for the years 1941-1943. I've lived for long stretches in a number of wonderful places--including Paris and Reykjavik and Kyoto--but Detroit is the city that has the most powerful hold on my imagination. As to how the book came about... My beloved mother-in-law drew soldiers' portraits during the Second World War. She was a teenage art student at the time, and these were often wounded soldiers. I never thought to ask her about this before she tragically died in 1983. But many years after she was gone, it occurred to me that here was a wonderful premise for a novel: an attractive and very young art student who draws wounded soldiers, and as she's trying to capture their injured spirits on paper, they are, naturally, falling head-over-heels for her.

Question: In October 2009, Time Magazine ran the cover story, "The Tragedy of Detroit: How a great city fell--and how it can rise again." Have you visited Detroit recently? Are you optimistic for the city’s future?

Brad Leithauser: I visit Detroit all the time. If the car companies all collapse, I plan to buy the last one off the assembly line. If bulldozers rubble the last office building, I'll be there with my notebook, taking notes and trying to make sense of it all. I'm a loyal son.

Question: At one point you say of your heroine Bea Paradiso, "She felt the War--it was the largest thing she'd ever felt. She felt it, that is, with a sweep and a complexity burgeoning steadily over time." How did people react differently to World War II versus the many wars we are currently involved in?

Brad Leithauser: Of course America is now in the middle of wars that have lasted much longer than the Second World War. And I'm struck by how peripheral they often seem. Afghanistan? Iraq? There are days when they hardly seem to make the newspaper, the evening TV news. I sought to capture something else entirely: a global conflict that infiltrated everything you did--what you wore and ate and watched and talked about.

Question: What sort of research went in to The Art Student's War?

Brad Leithauser: Most helpful of all for me were the newspapers. I spent day after bleary-eyed day reading microfilm at the Detroit Public Library. And there was something deeply heartening for me in stumbling out of the library to view the streets and buildings and parks I'd been reading about. I also spent a tiny fortune on 40s memorabilia. I was especially pleased when I came upon a very large "Official Map of Detroit's Transportation System" from the war years. I hung it on my office wall for years. In my mind, I was able to move from bus to streetcar and back again; I could freely navigate the city.

Question: Your previous novels have featured male protagonists. Did you have any difficulty creating your female main character, Bea Paradiso? What sort of differences did you find in your writing process?

Brad Leithauser: I'd like to think the book might plausibly be subtitled: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman. I saw this as a twofold challenge. First, I wanted to invent a female character believable enough that she could center a large novel. Then I wanted to give her a budding but authentic gift; I hoped readers would feel they were encountering someone of genuine talent, who happened to be born into a time and place not always hospitable to young women of talent. I suppose my mother-in-law (were she still alive), my mother, my wife, and my two daughters might each recognize some facet of themselves in my Bea Paradiso; I've borrowed freely from those I love. And perhaps that's why I suppose I feel fonder of Bea than of any other character I've created.

Question: You are a poet and a novelist. How do these two writing styles overlap and interact for you?

Brad Leithauser: By doing both, I feel I can manage--at least potentially--to lose less of life's "good stuff" than I would if I worked only in one medium. I'll come upon something that moves me very deeply, and I have two shots--poetry and prose--of getting it down in some satisfying way on paper.

Question: What are you working on now?

Brad Leithauser: Having spent so many years with my imagination fixed within a few square miles of Detroit in the forties, I'm now taking pleasure in much further forays. I've just begun working on a novel that--if all goes as planned--will open in Rome and end in Greenland.

(Photo © Erinn Hartman)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:37 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

In his sixth novel, Leithauser has realized a double feat of imagination: a loving historical portrait of a now-vanished Detroit in its heyday, and a keen and affectionate rendering of a young artist, Bianca Paradiso.

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