Author: Nancy Horan
Genre: general fiction, historical fiction
Published: January 21 2014
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
At the age of thirty-five, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne leaves her philandering husband in San Francisco and sets sail for Belgium to study art, with her three children and a nanny in tow. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her brood repair to a quiet artists' colony in France where she can recuperate. There she meets Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who is instantly smitten with the earthy, independent and opinionated belle Americaine.
A woman ahead of her time, Fanny does not immediately take to the young lawyer who longs to devote his life to literature, and who would eventually write such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson's charms. The two begin a fierce love affair, marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness, which spans decades as they travel the world for the sake of his health. Eventually they settled in Samoa, where Robert Louis Stevenson is buried underneath the epitaph:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Robert Louis Stevenson is a household name for his short stories and his classic novels. However, veteran author Nancy Horan focuses on the epic untold story from Stevenson's real life: that of his turbulent and passionate relationship with his wife Fanny. Their story is one that spans decades, and is one that poets write about. It's full of longing and pain, passion and misery, separations and reunification. From their less-than-auspicious beginning (she was married, he was eleven years her junior, both were less than solvent) to his all-too-soon death in Samoa at only 44 years old.
Horan excels at recreating her own versions of these real-life people. Though Stevenson is considered a famous author, his wife's story (or even name) is much less known. Before reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky, I'd never even considered Robert Louis's Stevenson's wife. After reading Horan's deliberate and dense accounting of these years of her life, it seems like a gross oversight. Fanny Osbourne is determined, clever, capable, and likeable. She makes the best of everything that comes her way -- as a mom, as a wife, as a friend -- but she's not infallible. She makes mistakes, goes back to the wrong man, but you still care about this complicated woman. She supports her husband's efforts, but she has talents and interests of her own. Her story is outlandish for her time, but you cannot respect her gumption.
The romance is epic here in Horan's second novel and pretty central to the entire plot. Fanny is a complete woman, who doesn't need a man but wants one. Her relationship with Louis is one between equals who genuinely care about one another, but it definitely goes through its rough times and trials. They complement each other well as a couple, but their relationship takes a long time to solidify and mature. They are tested by outside factors, their own insecurities, but even knowing the eventual outcome of their story, reading about Fanny and Louis is compelling.
This is a long book. It moves pretty well, but I can't deny that I wished for less detail and more noticeable movement at times. I fell in love with the characters early on due to the immense amount of characterization Horan uses, but it's a double-edged sword as that can also make for slower plot progression. It's not too much to note, but Under the Wide and Starry Sky can feel about 60 pages too long by the end. I also didn't care for when the narrative would jump from Fanny's 3rd person to Louis, as it felt random and wholly unneeded for the plot.
Nancy Horan's second novel is impressive. Its far-reaching scope, the intense amount of detail and observation, the well-drawn and dynamic characters.... all make it remarkably easy to fall into the story of Fanny's life. Horan's talent as a storyteller is written across every page and makes Under the Wide and Starry Sky more than worth the read, for returning fans of Loving Frank or to newcomers just reading this ambitious writer.