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Burning Brightby Tracy Chevalier
Synopses & Reviews
Tracy Chevalier, author of the international bestseller Girl With a Pearl Earring, returns with another brilliantly rendered historical tale set in the waning days of eighteenth-century London. Poet, artist, and printer William Blake works in obscurity as England is rocked by the shock waves of the French Revolution. Next door, the Kellaway family has just moved in, and country boy Jem Kellaway strikes up a tentative friendship with street–savvy Maggie Butterfield. As their stories intertwine with Blake's, the two children navigate the confusing and exhilarating path to adolescence, and inspire the poet to create the work that enshrined his genius.
"'Burning Bright' derives its title from the opening phrase of William Blake's great poem: 'Tyger, tyger, burning bright/ In the forests of the night. ...' When one learns that this novel's author is Tracy Chevalier, it follows as the night the day that we will enter the world of Blake's London and find 'fearful symmetry' there. If not precisely formulaic, Chevalier has by now established a formula... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) for her process and success: Take a historical period with a recognized figure or work of art, add some invented families and an engaging young person or two, do the research with specificity, and invite the reader in. Chevalier made her reputation with 'Girl With a Pearl Earring,' the best-selling evocation of an artist's model, Griet, a 16-year-old servant in the house of Johannes Vermeer. Chevalier, herself an American expatriate, now lives in London and takes full advantage of her knowledge of topography — evoking the Lambeth of King George III's reign with gusto and, it would seem, precision. There are the teeming streets and bawdy chat and excursions to Soho and Westminster Abbey, the publicans and whores and pinch-faced landladies. We read of hardworking craftsmen and those who cut corners for profit; we meet the blooming country maiden whose maidenhead will not survive the rapacious courtship of a dandy. There's 'Cutthroat Lane' and a city grown jittery with rumors, in 1792 and 1793, that revolutionary fervor will be imported cross-channel from France; there's the actual figure of Philip Astley, an 'oversized colorful character' who created the modern circus. He swaggers persuasively through the neighborhood — as does the corrupt Lothario on horseback, his son John. In Chevalier's list of dramatis personae, the principal players include young Jem Kellaway (fresh from Piddletrenthide and come to the big city with his parents and guileless sister) and streetwise Maggie Butterfield (who takes them under her wing but soon needs shelter herself). Stock figures all, cut from the cloth of Daniel Defoe and Charles Dickens, and stitched together with platitudes for attitude and a scrap of song. But one of the yields of this sort of read is the vein of data mined: We learn how to make Dorsetshire buttons and Windsor chairs, and it doesn't matter all that much if the artisans who fashion them are less than three-dimensional. The language is alternately casual ('Anne Kellaway snorted, trying to mask the laugh that had begun to bubble up') and forced ('He turned his intense gaze on Jem, who looked back at him, though it hurt, the way staring at the sun does, for the man's glittering eyes cut through whatever mask Jem had donned to go this deep into London'). At the novel's center stands the poet and painter of the 'intense gaze,' William Blake. His is a difficult presence to parse, though we do learn of his habit of lying naked in the garden with his wife, of his pleasure in reciting Milton and his skill with printing press and etcher's plate. We hear him talk to his dead brother and watch him while he draws. A recent biographer, Peter Ackroyd, reports on Blake's argument with Philip Astley (who had attached a log to a boy's leg and made him drag it on parade), and Chevalier brings that scene to fictive life. But she is somewhat less clear as to why Blake would engage the children in long colloquies on the nature of perception and existence, then press upon them his own copies of 'Songs of Innocence' and 'Songs of Experience.' Implausibly, predictably, young Jem and Maggie agree at tale's end that London and Piddletrenthide belong together: ''So if I'm on this side o' the fence, and you're on t'other, what's in the middle?' 'Jem put his hand on the stile. 'We are.'' If you believe in urchins happily united in the country dusk and reciting Blake to each other, then this book will persuade. Chevalier's villains are deep-dyed villains, her good people blindingly good; they go from innocence to experience with scarcely a hitch in their stride. Nicholas Delbanco teaches writing at the University of Michigan. His most recent novel is 'Spring and Fall.'" Reviewed by Bryan BurroughNicholas Delbanco, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The Blake connection, however, feels contrived and distracts from the plot, which weakens and loses steam after such a strong beginning — a minor quibble for fans of the genre or the author." Library Jounral
"A story rich in background but lacking a compelling center." Kirkus Reviews
"Chevalier has a fine eye for detail and delightfully captures the sights, smells and sounds of an earlier time." Chicago Sun-Times
From the bestselling author of Girl With a Pearl Earring comes a stirring eighteenth-century coming-of- age tale
Tracy Chevalier, author of the international bestseller Girl With a Pearl Earring, returns with another brilliantly rendered historical tale set in the waning days of eighteenth-century London. Poet, artist, and printer William Blake works in obscurity as England is rocked by the shock waves of the French Revolution. Next door, the Kellaway family has just moved in, and country boy Jem Kellaway strikes up a tentative friendship with street?savvy Maggie Butterfield. As their stories intertwine with Blake?s, the two children navigate the confusing and exhilarating path to adolescence, and inspire the poet to create the work that enshrined his genius.
London 1792. The Kellaways move from familiar rural Dorset to the tumult of a cramped, unforgiving city. They are leaving behind a terrible loss, a blow that only a completely new life may soften. Against the backdrop of a city jittery over the increasingly bloody French Revolution, a surprising bond forms between Jem, the youngest Kellaway boy, and streetwise Londoner Maggie Butterfield. Their friendship takes a dramatic turn when they become entangled in the life of their neighbour, the printer, poet and radical, William Blake. He is a guiding spirit as Jem and Maggie navigate the unpredictable, exhilarating passage from innocence to experience. Their journey inspires one of Blake's most entrancing works.
About the Author
Tracy Chevalier was born and raised in Washington, D.C. She earned her BA at Oberlin College in Ohio and holds a graduate degree in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. She lives in London, England.
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