The Art Student’s War by Brad Leithauser, Alfred A. Knopf, 512 pages
The lively mind of Bianca Paradiso, the heroine of Brad Leithauser’s sixth novel, is a prism that renders her most powerful experiences in the form of bright and bold colors. A passionate kiss brightens the “dark of her mind [with] an orange-gold glow,” Leithauser writes, and an encounter with another suitor is tinted with “a narrower palette of tans and golds and muted oranges.” When she falls ill, Bianca finds that “a great sprawling Valentine’s Day splotch of red oscillates into view, insolent and irrepressibly amorphous.”
Bianca, or Bea, is the painter-in-training of The Art Student’s War, a novel that takes a close look at many of the major themes of life in midcentury America. Set primarily duringWorld War II and the decade that followed, the book is about life in a city forever altered by the fighting abroad. And it’s also about the smaller (but no less indelible) battles over class, race, religion, love, and familial duty that changed the country while our soldiers were in Europe and the Pacific. Based in part on the experiences of several of the author’s family members, it is a rich, rewarding, and moving book.
The novel takes place, for the most part, in Leithauser’s native Detroit, where Bianca is a talented but naive student at a local art school and shares a class with one of several young men in her orbit, the charming and opinionated Ronny Olsson. Though not directly involved, her family is swept up in the war. Bianca’s father proudly builds houses for the families helping to build tanks and trucks, her driven younger sister knits clothing for Needles for Defense, and her little brother stages mock military offensives in the alley behind the Paradiso house.
Bianca has been tapped by the USO to draw portraits of soldiers at a hospital that happens to have been her birthplace. Here she meets another singular figure in her life, a young math whiz named Henry Vanden Akker. As Bianca does with colors, Henry sees beauty in numbers, and their relationship will shape her long after he’s shipped off to fight.
Meanwhile, the final member of the Paradiso family, Bianca’s mother, is enmeshed in a homefront conflict with her sister Grace. Mamma, as Mrs. Paradiso is called, is the aggressor in the sibling rift. At a dinner set to celebrate her sister’s birthday, Mamma theorizes that her husband has always loved Grace. This is nonsense, but Mamma, prone to depression, brooding, and selfrighteousness, is sure of herself, and the spat lasts longer than the war itself. Mercifully, it’s never a threat to what might be the most important relationship in Bianca’s life: the bond with Grace’s husband, her uncle Dennis.
While young, muscular men are risking their lives thousands of miles away, Dennis demonstrates his valor in a different way. A chubby, unassuming doctor, he looks after the Paradiso household as well as his own, shepherding his wife, his in-laws, and his nieces and nephews through a trying decade. Dennis is every bit a hero— and fittingly. He’s also the inspiration for the book’s most beautiful set of images: flashing forward, Leithauser places Dennis among a crowd assembled near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They are there on this July day in 1969 to watch the liftoff of a ship that will land the first man on the moon. Dennis has long been a sciencefiction enthusiast, a reader of space-travel stories, and throughout the 1940s and ’50s, while others thought the idea crazy, he knew this would happen one day. “He’s a paunchy white-haired pop-eyed round-faced square-eared figure standing among equally unprepossessing figures,” Leithauser writes. “Yes, here he is, present, before the blazing enactment of his highest-flying flights of imagination— who now indeed cannot see much of anything, for the ground trembles underfoot and his eyes stream with tears.”
The novel is enhanced by Leithauser’s care for period detail, particularly his descriptions of the civic transformation necessitated by war. In passing but telling asides, he notes that movie houses held 2 a.m. screenings for men who worked late into the evening making armaments; that during times of rationing households like the Paradisos followed what were known as “The Ten Food Commandments,” which included rules for the use of things like mustard and food packages; and that General Motors turned its attention from cars to “tanks and armored cars, antiaircraft guns and rocket launchers, a whole new alphabet of browns and tans and olives: B-24s, B-29s, M4s, M3s, LCVPs, LCTs, DUKWs, F6Fs, TBFs.”
If the narrative occasionally feels forced— one relationship, which blooms near the end of the book, feels particularly contrived— it does not deter from Leithauser’s achievement. He has placed a small story — that of a single family — within the context of a far bigger one, and he has told both with admirable expertise and heart.
— Kevin Canfield