The Art Stu­dent’s War by Brad Lei­thauser, Al­fred A. Knopf, 512 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

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

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