At this point, it's pretty much a matter of perspective whether Tracy Chevalier has carved out a niche or dug herself into a rut. Either way, though, she's reached a point of diminishing returns. Like her novels Girl With A Pearl Earring and The Lady And The Unicorn, her latest, Burning Bright, is a historical novel about the circumstances behind a famous work of art—not how it was created, but the milieu that helped produce it and the artist behind it. But where the real-life subjects of her former two books are shrouded in mystery, leaving plenty of room for creative invention, William Blake is a fairly well-documented figure, and in her attempts to not speak too stridently for him, she never really brings him into focus.

Burning Bright starts in March 1792; on the eve of the French Revolution, a country couple moves to London to escape a tragic memory. Chevalier alternates between their perspectives, jumping from chair-maker Thomas Kellaway to his fussbudgety wife Anne, their adventurous son Jem, and their fresh-faced daughter Maisie. Caught up in the rhythms and fate of a small circus run by larger-than-life entrepreneur Philip Astley, they also wind up involved in the life of Maggie Butterfield, the street-smart daughter of a cynical con artist. Chevalier crowds in ancillary characters as if hoping they'll create a rich plot via sheer density, and her sloppy point of view wanders between them from chapter to chapter and even sentence to sentence, occasionally meandering outside their perspective entirely. But she never gets too deeply into any of them, any more than she goes beyond scratching the surface of her historical setting.


Blake frequently pops in throughout the story to dispense bits of philosophical thought and poetry, generally related to his twinned, themed books Songs Of Innocence and Songs Of Experience; as the story progresses, it becomes clearer that Jem represents innocence and Maggie experience, while Maisie is perched on the cusp between. But Chevalier belabors the point, while leaving Blake as a cipher who nonetheless keeps making forced appearances to ask leading questions. Her latest bestseller is a quick, smooth read with a relatively compelling coming-of-age story, but it's more facile and less insightful than its predecessors. Had she scratched Blake entirely and spent more time developing her cast, this could be a terrific stand-alone novel. Instead, it's overshadowed by her previous books, which did the same thing, only better.