Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jekylls and Hydes in the Stevenson Family

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan


Fanny Osbourne is running away from America with her three children. She's had enough of her husband's cheating ways; surely Antwerp is far enough away. But when her youngest son falls ill and then dies, she's encouraged to recuperate in provincial France. There she meets Robert Louis Stevenson, who immediately falls in love with her. As he's several years her junior, she doesn't initially return his affections. But soon she's under his spell, and thus begins the whirlwind lifetime of land and sea, from frozen mountains to tropical rainforests, in sickness and health, for richer and poorer and until death did them part. This is Nancy Horan's "Under the Wide and Starry Sky."

The sweeping proportions of this story are almost incredible. We see these two through their travels across England, America, Europe and even the South Seas, where they eventually wind up on the island of Samoa. The amazing amount of miles they covered - together and separately, both on land and on sea - are even more astonishing when you consider that most of their lives the two of them were desperately poor. All of this, together with the startling number of bouts of illness that Louis suffered through as well as Fanny's emotional breakdowns seems like something that could only happen in an epic novel.

This is probably the reason why Horan chose this subject. The scope here is so enormous that there is plenty of drama. With so much of the facts available, clues to what might have been were probably bursting at the seams. It is no wonder that Horan's imagination could easily fill in the gaps and turn an ordinary biography into a piece of historical fiction. It is also not surprising that it took almost a full 500 pages to properly tell this tale.

Of course, this does beg the question if Horan didn't bite off a touch more than she could chew, by not limiting herself to only a certain period or few periods in their lives. The problem with that, of course, is trying to decide which periods to keep and which to be left out. While I initially balked at the length of this book, I personally couldn't find more than a few paragraphs here and there that could possibly have been superfluous. Taking those out would maybe (and I repeat, only MAYBE) have reduced this by only 50 pages at the very most. Not a huge difference, so I'm guessing Horan decided it wasn't worth further editing. However, I'm positive there are many things that didn't make the final cut.

In Horan's previous novel "Loving Frank," about architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his relationship with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Horan focused more on Mamah than she did on Wright. Here, however, she carefully Horan divides her focus between Fanny and Stevenson, using both their voices rather than using just one or the other. This could be the reason for this book's length, and is the only thing that I would criticize about this work. My feeling is that had she concentrated on only Fanny's story, this book might have been just a bit more powerful. This isn't to say that the final product is weak, but that its strength seems slightly diluted than it could have been.

What keeps this lengthy story from becoming a tiring tome is Horan's writing. The fluidity of her prose has been carefully matched to the era of the story, making it feel as if Fanny and Stevenson are writing it themselves. Of course, that's the whole point. If you can't make a fictional account of real writers sound like they do in their own works, you've taken on the wrong subjects. So in this Horan succeeds in spades, which does a great deal to keep the story moving ahead, despite all the details that needed to be included. We are enchanted by the poetic feel of these two people and are carried away to their harsh and exotic worlds. Horan's prose is simply gripping, as if we're reading one of Stevenson's adventure stories, and we become that anxious to find out what comes next (despite knowing the outcome from the start).

All told, Horan has given us an ambitious work that brings a beloved writer and the love of his life out of the dusty pages of literary history and into the bright light of day. We become familiar with the man behind the words and the woman who kept him alive long enough to make them available to the public. For this, we are thankful that Fanny was there with all her Indiana stubbornness to keep him going. What's more, she allows us to discover not only the parts of these two people that endear them to us, but also their darker sides with all their demons. For all of this, I have to give "Under the Wide and Starry Sky" four stars out of five and sincerely recommend it. 


"Under the Wide and Starry Sky" by Nancy Horan released on January 21, 2014 by Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book via NetGalley. This review appears on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady) and also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.