Fiction: "The art student's war" by Brad Leithauser

Leithauser's canvas can't contain his wide-ranging tale

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To dispose of a real downer first: Bianca Paradiso, the heroine of Brad Leithauser's new novel, launches the story in 1943 when she is 18 and ends it in 1953 at age 30. You read that right. It's a flaw, be it an editor's or the author's.

Otherwise, this new, ambitious work by warm-hearted novelist and poet is a middling success. It intriguingly, although at times uneasily, straddles the traditional novel and the fable.

This book with art as its core -- scenes in the Detroit Institute of Art are a short, entertaining course in art history -- is primarily the chronicle of the Paradiso family:

Neurotic, coffee-drinking and candy-munching Mamma and muscular, practical Papa; Bianca, also known as Bea or Bia (an unnecessary distinction); phlegmatic younger brother Stevie; and Edith, the brainy little sister.

They live on the marvelously named Inquiry Street in wartime Detroit, a city booming and wondrous, a far cry from its current state. Leithauser was born in Detroit. This is his love song to a city long gone.

"The art student's war"

By Brad Leithauser.
Knopf ($28.95)

Bianca, an art student (she's the one at war, a war within her family) at the Institute Midwest, is an observant, beautiful girl with second sight. She falls for Ronny Olsson, a scion of a drugstore fortune who might have stepped out of "The Great Gatsby," but their affair never is consummated, partially because of Ronny's sexual ambiguity.

Bianca goes farther with Henry Vanden Akker, one of the wounded soldiers she's commissioned to capture on canvas, but that affair doesn't go anywhere (I strain to contain salient elements of the novel's complicated plot). She winds up more mother than artist.

Leithauser goes deeply and effectively into family dynamics, contrasting the close-knit ambience of the Paradiso family with the curdled, aristocratic one at the Olsson redoubt and the chilly religiosity of the Vanden Akkers.

Leithauser's women are more memorable than his men -- other than Dennis Poppleton, Bianca's uncle, a kind of deus ex machina who helps people, including the painfully sensitive Bianca, navigate turbulent waters.

The minor characters, too, largely work; what's at fault here has less to do with people than plot. This is a book in which names and scenes are memorable, and for the most part, the writing is enthralling.

Why, then, is "The Art Student's War" less a whole than a sum of parts? Perhaps it is because Leithauser promised a book about an artist but detoured into one about family strife and healing.

Leithauser's insights into the urban decay that the growth of suburbs signified,hint at a deeper, more sociological work. The elements of greatness are here and the intent is never anything but noble.

The ending is a wonderful exchange between Bianca and her dreamy, resourceful Uncle Dennis, the balance wheel of the book.

Not only does it suggest that Bianca has reconciled her different drives, but also it resolves the family conflicts that give "The Art Student's War" much of the color and zest that make it worth reading despite its distracting overabundance.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.


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