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Book Review: Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

16 Oct

It’s been a while since I did a book review so I’m excited to be able to do this one.  I added Burning Bright to my To-Read Shelf because I was thinking about Chevalier’s other title, The Girl With the Pearl Earring. I loved that book and the subsequent movie was enjoyable as well.  Chevalier’s ability to tell the story of an artist through another person’s eyes was captivating to me.  Another of her books, The Lady and the Unicorn, had a similar structure and I enjoyed it equally as much.  While searching Chevalier’s book offerings, I looked for those that told the story of an artist and was delighted to see Burning Bright on that list.  I hadn’t heard of it before and instantly added it to the queue.

Book cover from

Book cover from

Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

The Kellaway family packed up their things and moved from a small town in Dorsetshire to London at the eve of the French Revolution.  Father Thomas Kellaway has been promised work by Philip Astley, a circus owner in the suburb of Lambath.  The family sets up shop and are soon overwhelmed by the quick-paced city life of Lambath.  Their neighbors are varied, from the up-tight landlady Miss Pellham, to womanizing circus-heir John Astley, and the French-sympathizing William Blake.  It’s around Mr. Blake that this story turns.  The Kellaway children, Maisie and Jem meet another neighbor, Maggie Butterfield, who grew up in the rough-and-tumble of London life and is intrigued by the ignorance of the Kellaway children.  Maggie makes fast friends with Jem and the two explore London together and delve into their interest in neighboring Mr. Blake.

At the time of the action, Blake has already published his book Songs of Innocence and is at work on Songs of Experience. Chevalier’s novel is set up so that the first half reflects the innocence of the children (Maisie, Jem, and Maggie) who are often shocked by Blake’s work-in-progress.  In the second half of the novel, Blake continues to run into the children in more ‘adult’ situations as the novel shifts to a second half focused on the experiences of growing up.

To me this book was not as enjoyable as Chevalier’s other works.  In the others, I liked how the reader got to know the artist as far as their work and their motivations.  In this novel, Blake’s character stays to the background, only coming forward at pivotal moments when the children are having realizations that are making them grow up (aka become more experienced).  Blake seemed like an almost unnecessary side character that could have been written out of the book.  Without him, the story of the Kellaways and Maggie would have gone on; he was not a critical piece of the puzzle.  In fact, I had to work to add him into my plot summary.

The first half was a little slow and seemed very childish to the point at which is was boring.  The second half of the book was much more enjoyable and interesting.  Based on some of the themes in the second half, I would say I’m part of the target age range for this book and it surprises me that such a large part was mainly juvenile.

A focus of the text is what lies between two extremes.  Blake has the children think about what lies between.  If innocence is the left bank of a river and experience is the right, what lies in between? The answer, we come to find, is life. Life is not black and white, good or bad, innocence or experience, but a combination and a fluid journey between the two. Maisie starts very ‘innocent’ and along her way gains experience, but never really loses her childlike joy.  Maggie starts the story very hardened by London ways and in the end finds herself seeking a simpler life.  The children cannot be categorized as one or the other and continually drift from one side of the metaphorical river to the other.  Maisie and Maggie’s shared common name, Margaret, shows again how the journey of two girls who start so differently and share something as crucial as a name can cross and cross again in the areas of grey.

This opinion can be related back to Blake’s books directly and is a theme in many other texts as well. It’s the crux of a coming of age journey in which a character finds that the world isn’t as simple as right and wrong.  Coincidentally, this is something I explore in my first WIP.  I think areas of grey are a big part of growing up. Maisie, Jem, and Maggie come to find this quickly.

Chevalier brings this to a head in the last scene of her novel, when Maggie and Jem have a copy of each of Blake’s books.  One was a gift for Maggie, the other for Jem and the two cannot figure out which is for whom.  They both reflect the contents and ideas of the two books together.

Writers Takeaway: Chevalier’s ability to weave historical everyday life into a story is commendable.  She is truly a master of the craft.  I enjoyed the rich characters she created and who all served a strong purpose in the book.  The one thing I hoped to learn to avoid is a slow start to the book.  I felt like the exposition went on forever without there being a real turning point to the plot. The story was a little too character-driven for me and I learned that there needs to be some more action to it to keep things interesting.

Overall, I do not recommend this book.  I give it three out of five stars.