The Art Student's War is Brad Leithauser's finest novel to date, deeply moving in its portrayal of a young aspiring artist and her immigrant family during Detroit’s wartime heyday.
The year is 1943. Bianca Paradiso is a pretty and ambitious eighteen-year-old studying to be an artist while her bustling, thriving hometown turns from mass-producing automobiles to rolling out fighter planes and tanks. For Bianca, national and personal conflicts begin to merge when she is asked to draw portraits of the wounded young soldiers who are filling local hospitals. Suddenly she must confront lives maimed at their outset as well as her own romantic yearnings, and she must do so at a time when another war—a war within her own family—is erupting.
Excerpted from The Art Student's War by Brad Leithauser. Copyright © 2010 by Brad Leithauser. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Brad Leithauser was born in Detroit and graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is the author of five previous novels, a novel in verse, five volumes of poetry, two collections of light verse, and a book of essays. Among his many awards and honors are a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and, in 2005, the induction by the president of Iceland into the Order of the Falcon for his writings about Nordic literature. He is a professor in the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He and his wife, Mary Jo Salter, divide their time between Baltimore, Maryland, and Amherst, Massachusetts.
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?
A: 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?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: What sort of research went in to THE ART STUDENT'S WAR?
A: 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, most of it picked up on Ebay. 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: You are a poet and a novelist. How do these two writing styles overlap and interact for you?
A: 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.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: 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.
A New York Times Notable Book
A Library of Michigan Notable Book
Kirkus Reviews Best Books of the Year
"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." —New York Times Book Review
“Leithauser offers a vivid historical portrait of Detroit in its prime as he affectionately chronicles the life of a young female artist.” —Chicago Tribune
“A loving, elegiac caress of a city used to rougher treatment. . . . This playful, erudite and emotional writer travels lightly and far and never in the quite the direction one would have predicted.” —The New York Review of Books
“A homage of depth and texture to the churning wonder that was Detroit in its golden age. . . . A living, breathing vision.” —The Washington Post
“Richly woven . . . sumptuous. . . . Some passages in this latest work beg to be read over and over, so perfect are the form and texture of the words.” —Dallas Morning News
"[Leithauser] replicates a world where such qualities as innocence, decency and optimism thrive and breathe, and he does it less by building an imaginary Nostalgialand of the mind than by guiding us through wartime Detroit. . . . It's not that the world of the book is virginally chaste—it is, after all, a home to war, the wounded, alcoholism, regret, cancer and race riots—but that it's viewed through such stubbornly forgiving and optimistic eyes." —Toronto Star
“Timely and engrossing. . . . The book creates a vividly constructed world.” —Boston Globe
“A peak achievement. . . . If ever there was one, Leithauser is a triple-threat man as novelist, poet, and critic.” —Commonweal
“Bianca is an altogether charming character. Blessed with the eyes of an artist, she drinks in the visual details of her city, mentally painting all the time. . . . Bianca Paradiso’s city is no paradise and never has been, but it does turn out to be a marvelous art studio—for the art of living.” —Christian Century
“A fresh, captivating coming-of-age story. . . . The novel's portrait of wartime fervor is . . . haunting. . . . Superb portraits of an endearing heroine and a cluster of finely observed secondary characters backlit by history.” —Kirkus Reviews