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The Art Student's War Kindle Edition

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Length: 513 pages Word Wise: Enabled Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled

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Editorial Reviews Review

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)

From 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1533 KB
  • Print Length: 513 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1 edition (October 21, 2009)
  • Publication Date: November 3, 2009
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B002TOBI6A
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,202,563 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed the first 273 pages of this book very much. Bianca had an artist's view of the world which was different and fascinating. Her family life and the lives of the other characters were well described and different, too. Her art school days, boyfriends and volunteer work drawing soldiers' portraits are lively and interesting to read about.

Then on page 275, everything changed. Suddenly the narrator is telling us that Bea is ill, she has a raging fever. Then, instead of being in Bea's point of view, we are with her Uncle Dennis as he drives frantically from Cleveland to Detroit to serve as Bea's doctor. This chapter is a mess.

Next, on page 275, we are back with Bea. Nine years have past. She is married to Grant (we never find out how they came to be married, despite all the detail in this book about every other little thing) and she has twin six-year-old boys. It's downhill from here. Much of what happened in the first 274 pages is rehashed. Everything has become mundane, a nineteen-fifties housewife's tale. Bea is no longer mysterious. She wears pedal pushers and goes to the grocery store.

Sheesh! I am soooo disappointed. I am on page 447, with a little help from skimming, and I am bored to death. No suspense -- during that strange middle chapter we were informed of all kinds of things that were to happen in Bea's life. No artsy descriptions or unusual characters. Everyone is ordinary and every event predictable.

Ich. I feel cheated.
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Format: Hardcover
I hadn't read any of Brad Leithauser's fiction before The Art Student's War. I was interested in this book because of family connections to Detroit at a time it was already past its glory days. The New York Times review was very positive.

I cannot agree. This is a cumbersome, highly repetitious novel that, for me, never achieves a life of its own. The characters, like those in the representational painting that is so frequently mentioned, seem to embody roles rather than live lives. All of them seem one-dimensional, stick figures. Whatever it is that Leithauser has to say, he says it at prodigious length. It is as if, having completed his work of the previous day, he has forgotten what he did. The book reminded me of the old New York Times in which every article would, seemingly, begin at the creation of the world before getting to the event at hand.

It is neither the ripping good yarn of a master story teller nor a work of surpassing conception and execution by a masterly writer. Rather it seemed to me to be a vast connect-the-dots exercise that would have benefited from critical and exacting editing.
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Format: Paperback
Some years ago, at what was once my favorite bookstore (BORDERS), I purchased this book. I was gratified to know that someone had written a novel in which --- as was spelled out on the back cover --- Detroit would occupy center stage. For it is the city in which I spent an extended period before moving elsewhere.

In truth, "The Art Student's War" (which begins in late May 1943 on a Woodward Avenue streetcar in which a young woman returning home from art school catches the eye of a wounded, black-haired GI with matinee-idol looks hobbling on crutches as he disembarks) reads more like a play with dashes of magical realism interspersed. The principal players in this novel are in the Paradiso family, from which, Bianca, the oldest child of 3 (known affectionately as "Bea" or "Bia" by her father Ludovico, an Italian emigrant who had arrived in the U.S. 30 years earlier with his parents) stands out. She's an aspiring artist at the Institute Midwest, which specialized in Fine Arts and Industrial Arts. One day, Bea's teacher offers her the opportunity to make visits to one of the city's largest hospitals, and draw portraits of the wounded soldiers there, as well as offer them some good cheer. For Bea, who is a highly emotional sort, this presents a big challenge. But one she does not shrink from because it also offers an escape from a family that seems poised to fall apart.

Bea is attuned to the rhythms of a wartime city, which, while prospering, is very much in flux. She summons up the courage to face these wounded men and bring some joy back into their lives through capturing their essence in pencil and charcoal.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It is always bittersweet when you read the last page of a novel you have really enjoyed. The Art Student's War invites you into a family, its trials and triumphs and makes you remember your own family's stories. The author, also a poet, has a wonderfully graphic way of using words to put the reader into the story. I look forward to reading all of the other works of Brad Leithauser.
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Format: Hardcover
Leithauser recreates a period that takes Detroit from WWII into the mid-1950s. The story revolves around a girl and her family as she enters adult hood and begins a family. The story includes many elements that often aren't associated with such an "innocent" era, such as race relations, mental illness, infidelity, premarital sex, unplanned pregnancy, and homosexuality. Anyone who has tried to learn about their family history will recognize that all these things were part of that era (not to mention eras long before). The story has a sudden break near the middle and although Leithauser successfully re-establishes the momentum of the book, the abrupt transition seems un-necessary. The book mentions real places, often without explanation. People who have been to Detroit or lived nearby will know Hudson's, Grinnell's, and Sanders, but others won't. Ditto the neighborhoods and thoroughfares, although oddly Leihauser chooses fictional streets for Bianca's homes. Beyond these quibbles, the story is one that follows a young woman as her world broadens simply by taking the streetcar to art school, meeting people who were nothing like those who had populated her world on the East Side of Detroit. WWII is both near and far, but became most real to Bianca when she began sketching portraits of soldiers who were convalescing at hospital that had been commandeered by the Army. Art school brought her a relationship with Ronny, a child of privilege while her drawing brings her into an equally unusual relationship with a doomed, intellectual young man.

The relationship with Ronny opens Bianca's world both in terms of art and the opportunities that come with a wealthy family. Family is a key part of the book.
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