The Art Student's War by Brad Leithauser

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.

Brad Leithauser was born in Detroit and graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is the author of five novels, a novel in verse, four previous volumes of poetry, a collection of light verse, and a book of essays. Among his many awards and honors are a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Grant, and a MacArthur Fellowship. An Emily Dickinson Senior Lecturer in the Humanities at Mount Holyoke College, he lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts. In 2005, the president of Iceland inducted him into the Order of the Falcon for his writings about Nordic literature.

Meet Leithauser on his book tour

From our interview with the author:

Q: 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?
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.

Q: Time Magazine recently ran the cover story (October 5, 2009), “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?
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.

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