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The Art Student’s War by Brad Leithauser

By chowardbc | | April 23, 2010 |

By chowardbc | | April 23, 2010 |

I picked up The Art Student’s War expecting a glimpse into an artist’s mind and a gloss of the shifts in the art world during the World War II era. Not what this book is about.

Brief summary: a loss of innocence story, including a girl’s loss of virginity, suppressive family strife, and the escalating racial tensions of Detroit.

Eighteen-year-old Bianca Paradiso is in a fine art program in Detroit in 1942. There she meets the handsome, artistic-yet-pretentious son, Ronny, of one of the wealthiest business men in town. The book initially focuses on her relationship with her family and the initial interactions with Ronny. Shifting toward a broader focus, one of her professors requests that she begin making portraits of young soldiers.

Leithauser beautifully captures the fledgling intimacy between artist and model. When working from a live model, an artist becomes attuned to the intricacies of the model’s appearance as well as personality tics. However, in the drawing process, models become breathing objects (not living beings), so Bianca’s chattering and flirtatious conversations with the soldier models speak to her discomfort with the injuries of the soldiers. The artist-model relationship, while intimate, requires an observational distance, and only by allowing her budding sexuality to cross that boundary does Bea fall in love with her soldier model, Henry Vanden Akker.

The author’s juxtaposition of Ronny (free spirited, moody artist from a wealthy family) and Henry (loyal, stable soldier and mathematician from a middle class family) feels forced at times. While Bea is understandably seeking herself, her own desires in her relationships with the two young men, subtle differences rather than a blatant dichotomy between artist and mathematician would have been more effective.

After watching him heal, Bea loses her virginity to Henry the night before he is to be shipped back to the Pacific front. She is angry that he schemed to seduce her, but when she is told he died on his flight to the front, she is overcome with grief. Only in death does he become her lost true love.

When visiting his parents, she comes down with severe influenza, leading to a hallucinatory fuge that separates the two parts of the book — Bea, art student, and Bianca, wife and mother. The archetypal near-death/rebirth feels trite, but the writing in the short 10 page hallucination is some of the best in the whole book. However, the sudden lurch 10 years in the future feels like starting a whole new book, which was frustrating to me.

Bianca abandons her art for middle class mediocrity, marrying an all-American boy (who did not go to war) and having twin boys. She maintains her connection to Ronny Olssen, who is a tenuous link to her artistic self. However, Ronny’s implied homosexuality surfaces, highlighting her complete disconnection from the artist she previously saw herself becoming. She becomes a passionless shell of the vibrant young woman she was in the first part of the novel.

By the continuing the story into the 1950s, the “war” in the title cannot be World War II. Leithauser ends the story with a discussion between pregnant Bianca and her uncle about the renewed kinship between her mother and aunt as they walk through the rich neighborhoods she used to visit with her father. By ending the story with an attempt at familial resolution, the “war” turns out to be the clashes between Bianca’s mother and aunt, hinting at great sociological implications.

Leithauser bit off more than he could chew in The Art Student’s War. While his formation of Bea feels cohesive and his understanding of the female mind convincing, most of the secondary characters are underdeveloped caricatures. His careful attention to the details of the urban landscape of Detroit in the 1940s and 1950s reads as a tender, nostalgic love story to the city in its hay day and gave my understanding of the dying Motor City a new dimension. His descriptions of the flush of young sexual attraction are the most lyrical and captivating of the novel, but his descriptions of “art,” either in the museums or the young artists discussions, fall unfortunately short considering “art” is supposedly a foundational part of the novel given the title. If Leithauser had stopped after the hallucinatory sequence or attempted only a brief foray into the future, the novel would have been much more effective. As it is written, though, The Art Student’s War is a bit too long and twisting for my taste.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of chowardbc’s reviews, check out the blog, Pool of Books.

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