Thursday, March 27, 2014
Review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky
Ballantine, January 2014
About the Book
From Nancy Horan, New York Times bestselling author of Loving Frank, comes her much-anticipated second novel, which tells the improbable love story of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his tempestuous American wife, Fanny.
At the age of thirty-five, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne has left her philandering husband in San Francisco to set sail for Belgium—with her three children and nanny in tow—to study art. It is a chance for this adventurous woman to start over, to make a better life for all of them, and to pursue her own desires. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her children repair to a quiet artists’ colony in France where she can recuperate. Emerging from a deep sorrow, she meets a lively Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who falls instantly in love with the earthy, independent, and opinionated “belle Americaine.”
Fanny does not immediately take to the slender young lawyer who longs to devote his life to writing—and who would eventually pen such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson’s charms, and the two begin a fierce love affair—marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness—that spans the decades and the globe. The shared life of these two strong-willed individuals unfolds into an adventure as impassioned and unpredictable as any of Stevenson’s own unforgettable tales.
Horan tells the life story of Fanny Osbourne Stevenson, a woman of incredible strength and character who eventually became the wife of author Robert Louis Stevenson. The book opens as Indianapolis-born Fanny leaves her philandering first husband 6,000 miles behind her, taking her three children to Belgium to seek a new life, away from the shame her husband has poured on the family.
Facing illness and destitution, Fanny soldiers on, making her way through Europe where she meets “Louis,” who falls in love with her bravery, lack of pretension, and American pluck. After eventually obtaining a divorce, Fanny and Louis marry and lead a peripatetic lifestyle, running to various climates in search of relief from Louis’s frequent bouts of respiratory illness that have plagued him since his childhood.
Fanny remains loyally by his side, rescuing him from the brink of death time and again, encouraging his writing, and making a home for them everywhere from England, Scotland, France, Switzerland, the U.S., and then the wilds of Samoa. As she plays second fiddle to her eccentric husband, sometimes living in the bowels of a ship or in a primitive island hut, Fanny struggles with her own identity, playing a part that requires her to squash her inner nature as he writes classics such as Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The tale is ultimately a sad one with everyone, including Stevenson’s snobby literary friends and even sometimes Stevenson himself, viewing Fanny as little more than a nursemaid—someone to feed, nurture, and heal RLS while he went about pursuing his writing “genius.” Fanny had many talents of her own as a painter, writer, and healer, not least of which was a great creative instinct that Stevenson used many times to his own benefit, but later came to resent.
Fanny does try to seek creative success on her own terms, but is undermined by Louis’s friends who look down on her, probably out of petty jealousy and spite. When Fanny starts to lose the battle against her own demons, paying a great price for the stress and strain caused by living a hard life in her husband’s shadow, Louis must decide what is truly important—the love of his wife and family or the opinions of his prejudiced literary circle.
The book is an intriguing glimpse into the life of an unusually brave and resourceful nineteenth-century woman. The hardships Fanny endured, largely caused by two husbands and a son-in-law, are heartbreaking, and one can’t help but wonder what she could have achieved on her own, without being marginalized by her husbands and their friends. Horan’s story lags in several spots, and at nearly 500 pages, it’s a long road to travel. The reader roots for Fanny, hoping that somehow, her story will come out well, as she deserves, but we all know real life doesn’t often have a storybook ending.
This has been described as a great love story, and the two do share a deep, enduring love, but I believe it’s more insightful than that. It highlights how messy love and marriage can be and how they must be fought for to be successful.
Rebecca Henderson Palmer