Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

Title: Burning Bright
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Dutton
Published: 2007
Pages: 320

Rating: 3 out of 10

I absolutely love Tracy Chevalier. Girl with a Pearl Earring was great, and Falling Angels absolutely blew me away. So, I was really looking forward to another of her works. However, no matter how much I wanted to like this book, I never managed to enjoy it all that much.

The storyline revolves around the Kellaway family, who have moved from the country into the busy city of London in 1792 - the eve of the French Revolution. Jem, the eldest Kellaway son, befriends a working girl named Maggie Butterfield and their next-door neighbor, a poet named William Blake. Jem's father spends his days working as a carpenter for the circus, while Maggie's father spends his days cheating people out of their money. As Jem and Maggie grow up and learn from each other, they unknowingly become the inspiration for a poem that Mr. Blake is writing.

Even as I tried to write the above paragraph, I faltered quite a few times, staring blankly at the keyboard and flipping back through the book itself, hoping that some forgotten, important plot detail would jump back out at me.
The truth is, however, that I wouldn't be able to name any vastly important plot details at all. There were possibilities of a plot when the novel started, but none of them ever seemed to go anywhere.
My favorite book that Chevalier wrote, Falling Angels, similarly has a loose, vague plot. However, while Angels gathers strength off of this fact (by turning your attention to vivid, magnificent characters), it did no favors here.

I wanted something to happen! So much of this book reminded me of a Dickens-esque world, and I kept waiting for the rush of complex, melodramatic action to go along with it.
However, none came.
There were opportunities - such as, the mystery that is hinted at right from the beginning. Did Maggie kill a man? Why? A couple times in the book, this is mentioned, and it seems to be a dark sort of secret that probably has hidden significance.
The 'mystery' is revealed toward the end, but it wasn't even anything exciting, and it certainly didn't do anything to further any sort of plot.

Chevalier is so amazing at writing personable, lovable characters, but I didn't feel any of that here. The main character, Jem, was not explored in any particular depth, and I never felt that I knew him. The other prominent character, Maggie, was a bit more life-like, but this is possibly just because she had such a springy, energetic character that was easier to write. I was constantly annoyed by her, leaving me with yet another person I didn't really feel that fond of.
There are some 'bad' characters, such as John Astley, the son of the circus owner. He does one bad deed in one scene, and is never seen again.

So much of this book, as I have said before, was left to go nowhere. At one point, a girl overhears a man speaking to the circus manager, and she learns that Philip Astley is not (as everyone assumes) the owner / manager of the circus - John (his son) is. Does John know this? Is his father taking advantage of him? Stealing the money from his son? Something?
We never know.
Countless other scenarios like this can be found through-out the book.
John has an illegitimate son that his father will not accept. Mentioned once and then forgotten.
Really - these things could have added a lot to the book if they were followed up on!

The character of William Blake was one that I was curious to see what Chevalier would do with. I have read his poetry, but know little about the man behind it.
He was a very neglected, minor character, even though I think that the author wanted him to play a large part in the story.
Blake's garden is mentioned far more times than he is, and whenever he does actually come into the story in person (about three times for a page or two), he is always making these dramatic, profound speeches to the children. In every scene, he ponders aloud about deep, philosophical matters, or asks the children their opinions on in-depth topics. None of these topics are ever very relevant, and since this is all we ever see of Blake, he comes across as a strange, eccentric man.
Perhaps he was... but I wanted to see more of him. He came into the story a couple times and asks questions like "If a tree falls in the forest when no one is there, does it make a sound?" and then leaves us.
No character could possibly be spun from this, and he was actually pretty pointless, now that I think about it.

I did briefly enjoy the descriptions of London, and Chevalier sends her characters roaming about to quite a few parts of the city, so we get a good look at it in 1792. Poorer areas are focused upon, and of particular interest to the story seemed to be prostitutes, both the beautifully tempting ones and the rotting, filthy ones that were far more common.
It was interesting, though never quite as vivid and transporting as I know Tracy Chevalier is capable of.

I wish that I had better things to write about this book, as it is from one of my favorite writers of modern historical fiction, but I was very disappointed with it. Hopefully, my next Chevalier read will be a better one.