Since her breakthrough "Girl With a Pearl Earring," Tracy Chevalier has created a cottage industry of literate, highly readable novels that hinge around the creation of a work of art – from a Johannes Vermeer painting to the Brughes tapestries in "The Lady and the Unicorn."
"Burning Bright" also hews to her winning recipe: Chevalier brilliantly re-creates Georgian London, specifically Lambeth, home of poet, engraver, and radical William Blake. But instead of focusing on the creation of his most famous works, Chevalier crafts a story about Blake's new neighbors, the Kellaways, who take jobs at Astley's Amphitheatre, a circus run by gregarious impresario Philip Astley. Thomas, a hard-working chairmaker, seeks a fresh start for his family after the death of one of his boys; grief-stricken Anne just wants to lose herself in the wonders of the circus; while teenage Maisie has a crush on the owner's son.
Blake is seen only through the eyes of two children: country mouse Jem Kellaway, the innocent of the equation; and city mouse Maggie Butterfield, the voice of experience. This "Beethoven Lives Upstairs" approach unfortunately makes Blake tangential to the story, and Chevalier's attempts to focus on his themes at times feel forced. Fans may not even notice the deficiencies in plot, though, given the lovingly etched characters and polished prose. Grade: B