Book Review: “Under the Wide and Starry Sky” by Nancy Horan, published by Ballantine Books, 2014
Robert Louis Stevenson, author of “Treasure Island” and “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” is the star of this historical novel. But it was his wife, Fanny Osbourne, and their adventurous life together that kept me reading until the last page.
In 1875, 36-year-old Fanny, an American, travels to Antwerp with her two young sons and daughter and their nanny to get away from her philandering husband. A former student of San Francisco School of Design, she wants to study art. While she and her daughter thrive as art students, her son, Hervey, gets sick and dies.
Trying to recover from her grief, she takes her family to France, where she meets Louis, 26, a Scottish lawyer and budding writer. He’s smitten with her, but the feeling isn’t mutual, at least not initially. However, she enjoys the company of his artist friends and cousin.
It’s the beginning of an unconventional relationship—she’s American, married, and a decade older than him. She eventually divorces her American husband to marry Stevenson. Their life together is shaped by the demands of Louis’s poor health. They live in various cities and countries in search of the most suitable climate for him. He writes a lot despite his poor health, eventually gaining fame and success. The book describes Stevenson’s success this way: “The fame Louis had dreamed of as a young man did not strike him like lightning. Instead, fame arrived as a small swell that pushed itself up slowly into a proper wave until it had overtaken him.”
I’m struck by Fanny’s fierce independence and her incredible physical stamina in taking care of her ailing husband. Toward the end of the book, the family sails to the Pacific for several months and eventually lives in Samoa, where they build a house from scratch and she expands her gardening skills to full-fledged farming as the owner of 300 acres of land. Years of stressful, itinerant life with a sick husband take its toll on her and she suffers a nervous breakdown in Samoa.
I’m disappointed that someone like Fanny (the real person, not the book character) was unable to pursue her own artistic ambitions. She was a dilettante at best. In the end, she was a product of her times—a woman expected to care for her husband and support him in his career.
I’m a big fan of Horan’s best-selling “Loving Frank.” I’m happy to see that she didn’t suffer from a sophomore slump. This is a compelling historical novel about Louis Stevenson and the intriguing woman behind his success. Even though I’ve never read Stevenson’s books, Horan’s accomplished writing and research made me sympathize with his struggles as a writer and his health issues.
The book’s title came from a poem written by Stevenson, who died at the age of 44 in Samoa. Fanny spent the rest of her life nurturing and promoting Stevenson’s literary legacy.