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Burning Bright [Audiobook] [Audio CD]

Tracy Chevalier
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 20 2007
Unabridged CDs - 7 CDs, 8 hours

Tracy Chevalier captivated readers when Dutton published The Girl with a Pearl Earring in December 1999. Since then, she has written two New York Times bestsellers, Falling Angels and The Lady and the Unicorn.

Now, three years after the publication of her last book, Chevalier is at the top of her form in the breathtaking novel Burning Bright.


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From Publishers Weekly

Author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, set in the home/studio of Vermeer, and other novels, Chevalier turns in an oblique look at poet and painter William Blake (1757–1827). Following the accidental death of their middle son, the Kellaways, a Dorsetshire chair maker and family, arrive in London's Lambeth district during the anti-Jacobin scare of 1792. Thomas Kellaway talks his way into set design work for the amiable circus impresario Philip Astley, whose fireworks displays provide the same rallying point that the guillotine is providing in Paris. Astley's libertine horseman son, John, sets his sights on Kellaway's daughter, Maisie (an attention she rather demurely returns). Meanwhile, youngest surviving Kellaway boy Jem falls for poor, sexy firebrand Maggie Butterfield. Blake, who imagined heaven and hell as equally incandescent and earth as the point where the two worlds converge, is portrayed as a murky Friar Laurence figure whose task is to bind and loosen the skeins of young love going on around him—that is, until a Royalist mob intrudes into his garden to sound out his rather advanced views on liberty, equality and fraternity. While the setting is dramatically fertile, there's no spark to the dialogue or plot, and allusions to Blake's work and themes are overbaked. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Chevalier made a considerable popular and critical splash with her 2000 novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, based on seventeenth-century Dutch painter Vermeer's model for his painting of that name. It was a precise, elegant evocation of Renaissance Delft, and readers who expect the same kind of atmospheric reconstruction of place in her new novel will not be disappointed; eighteenth-century London, from its shadier neighborhoods to its more elegant areas, arises from these pages in all its cacophony. But where the previous novel moved speedily, this one bogs down in plot inertia. The premise: a family of very modest means moves to the British capital from the countryside; the father of the family, a chair maker, has impressed circus impresario Philip Astley, during his tour of the counties, with his abilities and consequently received an invitation to come to London to join the circus as builder of all sorts of things. This family tale settles for the most part on the shoulders of the two youngest children, a boy and a girl, and a girl they befriend, who introduces them to the byways of the great metropolis. A neighbor of the new-to-the-city family is the famous real-life poet William Blake, but his role in the story never seems to gel. Regardless of its drawbacks, expect considerable demand. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By Walter Hypes TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
No one would have guessed, least of all himself, that Thomas Kellaway, a Dorset chair maker from a family settled in the Piddle Valley for centuries, would eventually end up living with his family in London. Everything about his life up until he met Philip Astley had been ordinary: drinking at the local watering hole two evenings a week and then going home the highlight of his life.

This was how he lived and how he was expected to live, until in Feb. 1792, Philip Astley's Traveling Equestrian Spectacular came to spend a few days in Dorchester, just two weeks after Thomas's youngest son, Tommy Kellaway, fell from a pear tree. He offered me work," he tells his wife Anne, "and we can have a better life in London." Anne certainly sees London as a new life away from the new mound of earth on the Piddletrenthide graveyard that haunts her every waking moment.

Together with their son Jem and their daughter Maisie, Anne and Thomas pile all of their scarce provisions into a cart and take the long journey to London, ensconcing themselves in the Hercules Buildings right in the heart of Lambeth. The city of London, however, proves to be a bit of a shock from Piddletrenthide, especially when the Kellaways meet the colourful Philip Astley himself who overpowers the family with his big and booming and opinionated ways.

Anne, however, isn't so impressed with Astley, or with London for that matter, and every inch of her gives out a message that she did not want to be here or have anything to do with the circus owner, a message that the self-opinionated Philip Astley was unused to. While, Thomas is left to eke out a living working for Astley, Jem and Maisie are left to try and calm their mother as the grief at Tom's passing continues to be lodged in her heart.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
I suspect that if you have never read any of Tracy Chevalier's work, you'll like this book better than if you are a fan. Burning Bright intensely develops London with a sense of place that you won't find exceeded in too many novels based in the 1790s. But with London being such a big part of the book, you may find the plot and the characters pale by comparison. That's why I rated the book at three stars.

If you loved Girl with a Pearl Earring and carry with you the joy that you gained from learning about Vermeer and painting, I suspect you'll think that Burning Bright is more like a two-star book. Other than his sympathies for the French Revolution, you won't know much more about Blake when the book ends than when it began (except for a few glimpses of his personal quirks).

Those who will love this book best will be those who want to know about Philip Astley and Astley's Circus. Astley was the founder of the modern circus and cut quite a colorful figure in English society at the time. Ms. Chevalier's fictional characters are intimately tied to Astley, his son, and the circus.

You'll spend most of your time following the Kellaway family (father, Thomas, a maker of fine chairs; mother, Anne, a button maker and homemaker; daughter, Maisie, apprentice button maker; and Jem, son, apprenticed to his father) as they leave rural Dorset to follow up on Astley's promise of sponsorship for their chair making if they come to London. Astley, with prodding, makes good and the Kellaways are soon tenants in an Astley building. We see London through their fresh eyes.

To draw the contrast between rural people and Londoners, Ms.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Tracey Chevalier's Best May 7 2007
By JBB
Format:Hardcover
I love Tracey Chevalier's books as they are always filled with so much detail of a particular era that I can really immerse myself in another place and time. Burning Bright does this very well but misses out when it comes to character development and plot. There must be a strong story to hold everything together and that is what I find lacking in this book. I don't feel like I learned a lot about any of the characters and was left with a lot of questions at the end. I would recommend The Lady and the Unicorn, The Girl with the Pearl Earring or Falling Angels instead of Burning Bright.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Visually stimulating and mentally thrilling Sept. 12 2009
By Saro
Format:Paperback
Tracy Chevalier's latest foray into the yesteryear is a quietly affecting journey of two mismatched youths into adulthood. Burning Bright portrays the Kellaway family subsequent to the loss of their middle child to tragedy in rural Dorset. At the outset of the novel, the Kellaway family is on an arduous journey to settle in to late 18th century London and begin anew.

Soon after, they move in next door to the revolutionary painter and poet extraordinaire William Blake and his loving wife. Burning Bright juxtaposes the budding friendship of young introvert Jem Kellaway with the sassy and street-smart London girl Maggie Butterfield with their exploration of the poet's illustrious and now famous poetry collection Songs of Innocence and Experience which the fictionalized Blake bases on his interactions and impressions of the young protagonists. As usual, Chevalier paints a lush historical background which infuses an intricate and an enriched visual imagery and makes the ordinary characters come alive with beautiful vigour.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  76 reviews
42 of 43 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Story falls flat March 26 2007
By Kathryn Sandrew - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I finished this book quickly, it held my attention well enough but I kept waiting for the plot to "kick in" and it never did. The ending was a complete let down. In fact, after I read the book, I kept wondering what the point of the book was-it really wasn't about William Blake who was portrayed as more of a backdrop. It just seemed to be a a year's chronicle of a small section of neighbors in London preceding the French Revolution. Other than Maggie, the characters were flat and somewhat undeveloped...you wanted to know and care about them, but it just never happened. Extremely disappointing book from a very good writer.
78 of 85 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a strong message March 21 2007
By Richard Cumming - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Chevalier sets her sights on the poet, mystic, and engraver William Blake in London during the year 1792. Blake is an odd duck. The story is told from the viewpoints of some neighbors, in particular, two families, one recently moved from the country (the INNOCENT) and a streetwise and hardened family (the EXPERIENCED).

Thus we have the metaphor for Blake's great work SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE. The French Revolution was underway and King George was terrified that his subjects would rebel against him. Mobs circulated collecting signatures on loyalty oaths. This excessive and intimidating barrage of bogus patriotism is eerily reminiscent of some of the things we saw in this country after 9/11. Do you remember all the cars with flags?

It's a lovely story and she tells it well. Is it GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING? No. Should it be? No. An author should not have to wear her most successful book like a millstone around her neck.

Enjoy it for itself.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chevalier conjures the sights and sounds of 1792 London May 29 2007
By Bookreporter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Tracy Chevalier brilliantly brought to life the 17th-century world of the Netherlands in the fictional biography of Johannes VerMeer in GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING. Now, in BURNING BRIGHT, she turns her spell-weaving skills toward painter, poet and visionary William Blake in 18th-century London.

Maisie Kellaway, daughter of a woodworker, has just moved with her older brother Jem and her parents from a North Country village to an upscale London row house owned by her father's new employer, Phillip Astley, of the famous Astley Circus. Her father, a skilled chair maker, seeks a better life for his family by working as a carpenter for the circus. Maisie is befriended by street-wise Maggie Butterfield, the daughter of a con artist and rogue who lives in a rough nearby neighborhood. Maggie is a few years older than Maisie and has her eye on Jem.

The Kellaways live next door to William Blake and his wife, who are shunned yet regarded with fearful respect by their neighbors. The story is set against the far-off rumblings of the French Revolution, a cause in which Blake seems to sympathize. As a poet and an engraver, Blake's obscure prolific publications perplex even the most erudite Englishmen, but they seem to impart the sense of lust for freedom and equality roiling on the continent that the fervid Royalists of the age see as seditious.

Maisie, Jem and Maggie begin to spend time in the Blake garden, as their landlady won't allow renters in her formal backyard. Blake does not outwardly try to influence the young people, but he and his wife encourage them to learn to read, and his poetry is all they have at hand aside from the Bible.

Blake's role in the book, while pivotal, is not as central to the story as was VerMeer's in GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING. Servitude and class distinctions are not as strictly drawn in the late 18th century as they were in the 1600s. As the 1700s draw to a close, a new awareness of the power of the masses is on the horizon. As the French Revolution grows, so does its threat of spreading to England. When Maggie's Royalist boss at the vinegar factory intimidates his employees into signing a petition in support of King George, she manages to slip away without doing so. She heads for the local pub where her mother, father and brother hang out.

The boss shows up at the pub and declares that dissenters to signing the petition are traitors to the crown and may suffer the same consequences as the French Revolutionaries if they don't support the king. When a few in the pub, including Maisie's father, stand up to the man, they are threatened with a visit to their homes. Maggie is shocked when her own father so easily bends to the will of the petitioner. She follows Maisie and her father to their home. Soon, a torch-bearing throng marches down the street where the Kellaways and Blake live. They confront Blake at his doorway, and when Blake staunchly refuses to sign, a riot breaks out. What follows seals the fate of our young heroes.

Chevalier is adept at evoking a powerful sense of time and place. In GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, one could almost see the muted hues of the city of Delft, which so influenced VerMeer's paintings. In BURNING BRIGHT, Chevalier conjures the sights and sounds of 1792 London, shrouded in fog and coal smoke, and bustling with street vendors, charlatans, prostitutes and thieves. She captures ordinary people at the dawn of the radical changes in social, moral and political opinion that will shape the centuries to come.

--- Reviewed by Roz Shea
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What's in the middle? April 3 2008
By Linda Pagliuco - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Tracy Chevalier is a skilled writer whose novels have all been historical, built around a famous personage from the chosen time period. In Burning Bright, that person is William Blake, the rather mystical English poet/philosopher/engraver, but his presence is intermittent. This novel focuses upon two late-18th century London families, one newly arrived from Dorset and the other more established. Both are poor, struggling to get by, and the plot is built around the adolescent children of these families. Characterization is one of Chevalier's strengths, and Maisie, Jem, and Maggie quickly charm the reader, while others, notably John Astley (the dastardly villain of the piece), Charlie, and the bigoted landlady. Circus folk, pub denizens, washerwomen, and the like add plenty of dash and color. A feel for life in London during the French Revolution quickly develops. Thematically, the concepts of opposites, the conundrum of what's in the middle of each opposing pair, and the drive toward symmetry, are all recurrent ideas, taken from Blake's own work.
Burning Bright provides hours of intelligent, pleasurable, and at times, thought provoking reading.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars FLICKERING LIGHT June 23 2007
By Red Rock Bookworm - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This was a book I listened to as I drove to Arizona. The fact that the drive was boring and the landscape barren made the book fairly enjoyable. Not a prize winner by any stretch of the imagination, the story portrays Georgian England competently and gives the listener a glimpse into the everyday lives of "average" folks. We experience every aspect of their lives and work as well as the influence of the French Revolution on their existence. The reading by Jill Tanner is adequate (although I could have lived without her singing the three or four bawdy pub songs that were peppered throughout the book).

As others have indicated, this is NOT "The Girl With A Pearl Earring" in which Vermeer was a central character. Those purchasing the book with the belief that it will tell the story of poet, artist and printer William Blake will be sadly disappointed. His appearance in the novel can best be compared to standing on a railway platform as a train goes by and looking at the people on the platform across the way. You only catch a fleeting glimpse between the passing cars. So also with Blake.... he is a mere "footnote" in this book as he makes appearances here and there and acts as mentor of sorts to the Kellaway and Butterfield children, who are in truth the central characters of the story. The children do, however, act as a sort of catalyst in inspiring the poet to create one of his most famous poems, "Songs of Innocence and of Experience".

In reality, this is part coming of age tale, part story of young love, with a side trip to examine the anguish of being an independent thinker in an era when dissidents were looked upon with great suspicion.

Not the best book on tape you will ever listen to, but good enough to keep you from falling asleep at the wheel. Two and a half stars.
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