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The Art Student's War - Brad Leithauser

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 was born and spent half my life before forging a new start and career out East.

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. She makes the acquaintance in art school of Ronny Olsson, someone she had fancied for his looks and debonair style, whom she soon learns is the scion of one of Detroit's wealthiest families, and a talented artist in his own right. Frankly, as the novel wore on, I never really felt sure about Ronny Olsson. Sometimes, he rankled me. Other times, he seemed indecisive in his "relationship" with Bia (whom he insisted on calling Bianca) --- and she with him. There is also another short-lived relationship Bia had (virtually concurrent with the one she had with Ronny) with one of the wounded soldiers whose portrait she had rendered in charcoal. All the while, the author gives the reader some feel for Detroit, though he never seemed to get into the heart and guts of the city for me. Passages like the following, while heartening to read, ultimately left me wanting more:

"... the whole of Detroit was a single machine. ... This was the town where the Iliad met Henry Ford. The assembly lines were running twenty-four hours a day, the overburdened railroads were clanking in and out of the city, and she, Bianca Paradiso, portfolio under her arm, was a piece of it all: ..."

"No city on earth had ever fought a war the way this city was fighting: it had become democracy's true arsenal. It was bearing the burden of a dream born perhaps in Ancient Greece: the governed shall govern. And future historians would recognize that the War's authentic center had lain not in London, or even in Washington, but here ... in Michigan, in DETROIT."

I admit to perhaps having overly high expectations about this novel, upon which the author failed to deliver. He touches upon the June 20th, 1943 race riot (one of the worst in the city's history -- I remember well some of what my Mom --- who was in her early teens in 1943 --- told me about that tragic event) only sketchily. I thought, from what the back cover had hinted at that the riot itself would play a prominent part in the novel. That simply didn't happen. Instead the reader witnesses the ups and downs of a family which reads like a melodrama whose parts don't always mix well. As a reader, I felt I could see the rotors, nuts and bolts of the novel, which tended to obscure the novel itself at times. For example, Chapter XXV should have been left out - period.

Nevertheless, I am glad to have read this novel. I'm now in search of the novel this spring that will thrill and absorb me, leaving me wanting MORE.