Art Student’s War

Leithauser, Brad. The Art Student’s War. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2009.

Right off the bat I have to mention the author’s note. If you are someone who normally skims or even completely skips this part, in a word: Don’t. It’s touching. For starters, I don’t know many men who have a decent relationship with their mothers-in-law much less those who find inspiration in them, but Leithauser has done those guys one better. He goes on to say that The Art Student’s War “must serve as a tribute…” to his mother-in-law. Classy. Seriously.

I didn’t think I would like The Art Student’s War because I’m not a big fan of the overly dramatic. Within the first fifty pages Bianca Paradiso’s family is rocked by scandal: her aunt accidentally reveals a breast when her bathing suit slips. The dynamics between the two families is never the same after that. Yes, I know the times are different now and you can almost expect to see a bare breast on a beach these days, but the amount of anguish the entire family suffers at the hands of this one mistake seems a little exaggerated…until I read on. First of all, mental illness plays a part here. And. And! And, I should have known better. Bianca’s character has been melodramatic from the start. Once, she was moved to anxious tears because she regretted not talking to a soldier on a bus. She lamented he didn’t hear her say thank you.
As the story deepens, and you get to know the characters better, Bianca rounds out to be a steadfast good girl with all the dreams and aspirations of becoming a worthy artist. Those dreams are first realized when she is asked to help with the war effort: to use her talents to draw portraits of wounded soldiers in the local hospital, the very hospital where she was born. It is here that she meets Henry. The relationship that blooms is complex and sets Bianca’s Coming of age in motion.
Halfway through the book there is a weird break that is told from the perspective of Bea’s uncle. It’s a glimpse into the future and doesn’t quite fit with the flow of the story. If you are paying attention, it gives away the plot and reveals more than it should. When we come back to Bea, she is a married woman with twin six year old sons. She has remained close to a few childhood friends, but is not the artist she used to be. Life goes on. Detroit is like another character in the book, growing along with Bea.

An added benefit of the Art Student’s War is the art history lesson you get along the way.

Reason read: Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, was born in the month of May.

Author fact: Leithauser is a Detroit native who studied at Harvard. That should tell you something – street smarts and book smarts!

Book trivia: scattered throughout The Art Student’s War are illustrations. These are the illustrations his mother-in-law drew that inspired the book. Leithauser also includes a photograph of Lormina Paradise. Very nice.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Definitely Detroit” (p 74). As an aside, Pearl calls Leithauser’s writing “magical” and I couldn’t agree more.

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