Bookmarks Issue: 

A-Burning Bright"Tyger Tyger, burning bright,/In the forests of the night;/What immortal hand or eye,/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" wrote printer and poet William Blake (1757–1827) in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Just as she recreated 17th-century Dutch painter Vermeer’s life in Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), Tracy Chevalier reimagines 18th-century London. When the Kellaways move from rural Dorset to London, the father finds work with circus celebrity Philip Astley; his children, Jem and Maisie, meet the sophisticated, street-smart Maggie and their eccentric, politically outspoken neighbor … William Blake. Against the backdrop of political turmoil, Blake finds inspiration for his poetry and a fitting symmetry as Maggie, Jem, and Maisie—from contrasting worlds—come of age.
Dutton. 311 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 052594978X

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Her story of the young protagonists and their contrasting worlds is vibrant and involving. But her portrayal of Blake, and her attempt to link his work with the children’s story, are not entirely convincing." Barbara Lloyd McMichael

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"[Blake] 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. … If you believe in urchins happily united in the country dusk and reciting Blake to each other, then this book will persuade." Nicholas Delbanco

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"A more appropriate title for the book might have been Jem, Maisie, and Maggie’s Historically Accurate Adventure, since it is their increasingly bold outings from childhood and from home that provide the story’s modest narrative momentum. … As in past books, Chevalier’s writing is most lively and supple when depicting adolescent sexuality." Julie Wittes Schlack

South FL Sun-Sentinel 2 of 5 Stars
"Those who’ve read so much as a one-paragraph account of Blake’s life will learn nothing new about the great British poet and artist, nor will they gain any provoking insights to chew over. … If you squint your eyes, Burning Bright is a painless enough way to spend a few hours." Chauncey Mabe

Philadelphia Inquirer 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Difficult poet and talented engraver William Blake is supposed to be at the heart of it, but his fearful symmetry is barely framed—if you don’t know much about his mystical poems and drawings before you read this novel, you won’t come away enlightened." Susan Balée

USA Today 1 of 5 Stars
"It is clear that Chevalier has researched the man, his art and his vibrant, fascinating times. … The problem is Chevalier’s storytelling." Deirdre Donahue

Critical Summary

Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel paints a colorful, compelling portrait of 18th-century London: the teeming streets, bawdy pubs, filthy factories, working-class homes, and the political unease generated by the French Revolution. Yet setting alone doesn’t create a novel, and critics agree that Burning Bright lacks a compelling set of characters and, for the most part, devolves into a formulaic plot. The biggest problem is Blake himself: Chevalier never manages to successfully connect him to the young protagonists’ adventures; nor does she capture Blake’s psychological contradictions and depth. Entertainment and history lite, this novel "isn’t exactly burning bright," concludes the Philadelphia Inquirer.