Book Review: Burning Bright

 by Tracy Chevalier

Seldom do I await an author’s next book with much anticipation; however, for two years I have eagerly awaited Tracy Chevalier’s ninth novel, “Burning Bright.” Chevalier is most famous for writing “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” a novel featuring Dutch painter Vermeer. The book was made into a highly praised movie of the same name, starring Scarlett Johannsen and Colin Firth.

Chevalier has the ability to transform a story into a colorful painting, unfolding as a vivid image before the readers’ eyes; “Burning Bright” is no exception. The novel depicts eighteenth century London, focusing on several families who are neighbors of famed writer and artist and supporter of the French Revolution, William Blake.

I had the opportunity to attend a Tracy Chevalier reading and book-signing held in March 2007, at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Chevalier, who has lived in London for the past 20 years, has an open face and straightforward, approachable manner.

After reading excerpts from “Burning Bright” Chevalier took time to explain how she weaves fiction with real historic characters, creating a tapestry of folklore and authenticity. For instance, there is a story about Blake that has been passed down through the centuries. It involves Blake and his wife being discovered in their garden in a state of undress reading out loud to each other from “Paradise Lost.” Many historians claim the story is most likely made up, but Chevalier pointed out that most stories are, in part, true. In “Burning Bright” she uses the garden story but changes it to reflect how, perhaps, the story really got started and how it could have been embellished to create a more salacious tale.

Chevalier skillfully uses instances of Blake’s verses throughout the story as a stage on which to play out the story of her characters. Maggie is a fourteen year-old streetwise Londoner who befriends Jem, a country boy newly arrived to the city. Chevalier follows the lives of these two young people as they live and grow up in a world of harsh poverty. Bits of Blake’s poetry are used as metaphor and foreshadowing of Maggie and Jem’s relationship.

Other characters include the children’s families, William Blake and wife Kate and the gregarious Philip Astley. Many consider Philip Astley the father of the modern day circus and was a colorful and useful historical character for Chevalier to write into her story. It is a historical fact that Astley lived and operated his wild circus rehearsals near the home of William Blake. The addition of Astley to the story adds glamour to the otherwise rough lives of 18th century Londoners.

With the French revolution well underway Maggie and Jem sense a hint of change; though neither can articulate nor even comprehend the change, it is around them and inevitably in them. As the pages of the book and days of the year go by the children develop into a young adults, more certain of themselves in a still uncertain future. Maggie comes to terms with a secret and Jem learns to live life despite the death of his older brother. “Burning Bright” is not a whodunit or passionate tale of love, but rather a coming of age story. It is a story about getting to know one’s self in a crazy, unforgiving world; a story with a timeless theme.

 *Originally pulished in the Berthoud Weekly Surveyor in April 11, 2007.

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