"The Last Runaway" (Dutton), by Tracy Chevalier
Tracy Chevalier's "Girl With a Pearl Earring," which brought Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer to life, has become a near-classic in contemporary historical fiction. And her latest novel, "The Last Runaway," takes on similarly fascinating and little-known subject matter -- the Quakers' role in the Underground Railroad during the mid-1800s.
Heroine Honor Bright leaves England for America, settles in Ohio and becomes intimately involved in the movement -- helping runaway slaves reach freedom. Sounds great, right? But despite this compelling fictional backdrop, Chevalier's storytelling just doesn't do it justice.
Bright, despite her name, is anything but. Her character is flat and dull and spends much of her time longing for home, harshly judging her new American friends and family and talking about how she really shouldn't be complaining about it. This criticism seems all the more confusing when we learn that Chevalier intended her latest novel as her "love letter home." (She's made her home in England for nearly 30 years.) The rest of the characters are similarly unsympathetic and undeveloped.
And the quilting. Clearly, the discussion of quilting -- the patterns, the styles, the methods -- is intended as a motif to carry the reader seamlessly through the story. Instead, it feels obvious, annoying and overdone.
That said, it's a quick read as Chevalier's writing is solid and compelling. "The Last Runaway" remains a page turner as readers are anxiously waiting for something to happen. But when things do happen, the action seems trite and well-trodden.