Home-front casualties

In World War II era, a family torn apart finds healing

By Floyd Skloot
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2009

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Over the course of three productive decades, Brad Leithauser has published six novels and about a half-dozen collections of poetry. As a poet, he is often drawn to telling stories and exploring characters, his verse borne along a current of narrative. As a novelist, his characters and plots add emotional power through the massing of imagery and precision of language. It makes sense that one of his books, “Darlington’s Fall’’ was a novel-in-verse. A risk for a poet-novelist is imbalance: The poems can flatten into prose or lose their intensity of focus; the novels can stall amid lofty writing or literary preciousness, and ignore the engine of plot and character.

In his new novel, “The Art Student’s War,’’ Leithauser does not ignore plot and character. Though set in the 10 years between 1943 and 1953, the novel feels packed with wartime stress, economic struggle, an influenza epidemic, racial tension, the effects of mental illness on family dynamics, the problem of art’s place in a time of national emergency. There are entwined romances, life-altering illnesses and losses, and personal transformation. The book creates a vividly constructed world in which “everything was always dissolving to reveal a deeper, anterior reality.’’

But the writing can be overdone, sluggish with adverbs and adjectives, as in this typical sentence: “Yet the nonjudgmental way Ronny spoke the term - as if it were a purely scientific designation - abruptly rendered the idea hideously plausible.’’ It is as though Leithauser feels compelled to intensify each noun or verb to heighten the moment rather than trusting the action to carry emotion. Sometimes the rhetoric is too high and melodramatic for the situation: “hers was the cry of a soul riven by that mortal recognition from which, henceforward, life must be refigured: the bare, astounding notion that Eternity itself isn’t large enough to make good the loss you’ve suffered.’’

The story deals in part with the impact of World War II on Detroit, “democracy’s true arsenal’’ in whose “beautiful factories, infernally aglow . . . the War would be won.’’ Factories that had produced automobiles are transformed to produce tanks and bombers; workers arrive to trigger a boom in such fields as home building, where Vico Paradiso is employed. His daughter, the art student Bianca, also known as Bea and Bia, begins visiting wounded soldiers in the city’s Ferry Hospital, where she herself had been born 18 years earlier, to sketch their bedside portraits. Intense relationships ensue with Bianca’s fellow art students and the soldiers she draws.

At the same time that she is spending her home-front war in this manner, she is also enduring a war on the familial home front. Her mother, Sylvia, is suffering from depression, delusions, compulsions. She falsely accuses Vico of loving someone else - her sister Grace - shattering the intimacy and peace of this close family.

The way the city and family change during wartime, and change again in its aftermath, is revealed in rich detail and moving scenes. Controlling public and private dimensions of “The Art Student’s War,’’ Leithauser uses Bianca to provide the novel’s central viewpoint. As an artist, she is said - repeatedly - to be someone who “observes everything’’ and even manifests clairvoyance. But she comes across as blind to what goes on within her relationships, missing so much that is essential in events happening around her. She is also, for much of the novel, shallow, flummoxed, unable to manage her emotions. What emerges from this contradiction between Bianca’s intense observation and limited understanding is a need on the reader’s part for careful attention as we begin to realize what Bianca is missing. As her Uncle Dennis, a physician and the husband of Bianca’s beloved Aunt Grace, says, “for somebody with second sight, my dear, you sure missed a lot this time around.’’

While she is the novel’s main point of view, her extended family -and its drama - is its true main character. Bianca’s troubled parents, the aunt and uncle so hurtfully implicated in her mother’s accusation, the nerdy sister Edith and rambunctious brother Stevie, are all illuminated as they share center stage. So is Bianca’s eventual husband as the family expands, despite its turmoil, and moves toward eventual healing.

“The Art Student’s War’’ is, at its core, a traditional American wartime love story. As such, it is timely and engrossing. By the end, all its principal characters “have been to Hell and back.’’ It is an archetypal journey and those who complete it, particularly those who are damaged by it, are “the best kind. They’re stronger.’’ Leithauser’s message is a hopeful one in the face of deep struggle.

Floyd Skloot’s recent books include the memoir “The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life’’ and the poetry collection “The Snow’s Music.’’

By Brad Leithauser
Knopf, 496 pp., $28.95

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