Like at least two of her previous works, Tracy Chevalier’s Burning Bright is a fictionalized account of a historical artist’s creation, in this case William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.
I really liked my two previous encounters with Chevalier – The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn. Like Burning Bright, these novels take the historical setting that the artists lived in and create a story about the proposed motivation and inspiration of great and familiar works of art. Based on these works and what a huge fan I am of the British Romantics, I was hoping for something great from Burning Bright. I was disappointed.
The story centers on the Kellaway family, a family of four who has just moved from the quiet and quaint countryside (innocence) to the hustle and bustling London (experience). In addition to these four, there’s another family of four – the Butterfield’s – whose youngest daughter befriends the youngest son of the Kellaway’s. Together they also get to know the Kellaway’s mysterious and intriguing neighbor – William Blake.
In addition, there is the historically accurate Astley’s Circus, owned by Philip Astley and run by his philandering son, John.
All of these folks are pretty interesting and well developed characters. But, there. is. no. plot. none. nada. Not until disk eight of ten does something happen that you think, “Is this the start of a story?” And while it is the start of something, it isn’t enough to save the work.
In the book’s defense, I’m sure a group could have a pretty decent discussion about the concepts of innocence and experience, the efforts of one to save or become the other, or what happens when the two are unexpectedly thrown together by circumstance.
However, Chavalier’s ending was the icing on the cheese cake. Blake gives Maggie Butterfield and Jem Kellaway each one of his Songs books, and they can’t figure out which book was meant for whom. This was a bit too campy for characters who have embodied their title attribute throughout.
I think what is most disappointing is that I’ve really been looking forward to Chevalier’s 2010 publication, Remarkable Creatures. Now, I may not be so quick to pick this one up.
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