Fresh, captivating coming-of-age story from poet and novelist Leithauser (A Few Corrections, 2001, etc.).
Detroit, 1943. In a crowded streetcar, a young soldier on crutches gallantly insists on a pretty young woman taking the one vacant seat. It’s a Norman Rockwell moment, and Bea Paradiso, an 18-year-old art student, will cherish it. Her family considers her overemotional; certainly she is ardent and impressionable. Soon she will find an outlet for her patriotism, visiting the hospital to sketch wounded soldiers, giving them back their “prewar faces.” The visits provide an escape from home, in turmoil since Bea’s deranged mother accused her sister, sweet Aunt Grace, of trying to steal her husband Vico, an immigrant building contractor. The accusation is absurd—Grace has her own wonderfully happy marriage—but it will have dire consequences. Bea also finds respite in the company of fellow art student Ronny Olsson, handsome, talented, provocative and heir to the city’s largest drugstore chain. Their first kiss is a riot of colors, appropriate for “two kids in love with painting.” Then Bea’s feelings are diverted toward another soldier, Henry Vanden Akker, a brilliant truth-seeking mathematician. Transcending cliché, Bea gives up her virginity the night before Henry returns to the war, though she knows (second sight) that he’s doomed. After he does indeed die in a plane crash, fragile Bea seems headed for an early death herself, the victim of a flu epidemic and her shattered nerves. But Leithauser spares her, and another 200 pages show her, nine years later, happily married with twins. This allows the author more space to examine, with the perceptiveness of Anne Tyler, how families work, but the novel’s portrait of wartime fervor is so haunting that showing us Bea’s later life, no matter how fulfilled, seems like adding a wing to an already perfect house.
Superb portraits of an endearing heroine and a cluster of finely observed secondary characters backlit by history, their brilliance slightly dimmed in the lower-keyed Part Three.