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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.)
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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.