Written by Lauryn Smith
If you are unsure whether to read classics by Robert Louis Stevenson, such as "Treasure Island" or "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," pick up a copy of Nancy Horan’s "Under the Wide and Starry Sky" to garner a decision. After reading her novel, you will want to jump into Stevenson’s stories straight away.
In "Under the Wide and Starry Sky," another woman-behind-the-man story and Horan’s second novel, Horan captures the charismatic character who is Robert Louis Stevenson, known by his friends simply as Louis, by introducing readers to his American wife, Fanny Osbourne. Following Fanny’s story, Horan exposes the intricacies of life as an artist.
Fanny leaves her adulterous first husband at the age of 35, taking her three children with her from San Fransisco to Belgium and later, after tragedy hits the family, to Paris. With the goals of recuperating, studying art and establishing a new and better life for herself and her children, Fanny finds herself at a quiet artists’ colony, where she meets her eventual second husband. Louis, who is 10 years Fanny’s junior and has a personality Horan describes as being a “theater of emotion,” becomes enamored by the down-to-earth, self-sufficient Fanny and pursues her reciprocal desire. Fanny does not take to Louis right away, but after some time succumbs to the charms of the Scottish lawyer turned writer. Louis’s lifelong sicknesses, Fanny’s personal troubles and their expansive travels around the globe cause their relationship to be an adventure full of both high highs and low lows.
Told from an omniscient perspective that follows both Louis and Fanny at various points, Horan’s story is chronological, yet never boring or lacking in contextual information. Set in the late 1800s, the fictional novel thoroughly brings to life actual persons. Horan's mission seems to be to give fresh life to these historical characters, particularly the less familiar Fanny, and to demonstrate their support for and dedication to each other, which she does successfully by establishing Louis and Fanny as sympathetic and intriguing.
Horan is also the author of "Loving Frank," a novel with a tone similar to that of "Under the Wide and Starry Sky." In both, there is a strong romantic notion, though in a sweet rather than erotic sense. As with the characters in "Loving Frank," Horan writes as if she intimately knows Louis and Fanny. The details, both large and small, demonstrate Horan’s thorough research. Regardless of the amount of research, the language Horan uses is not necessarily reflective of the time, yet it does not detract from the novel, as the wording is artfully succinct and precise.
In retrospect, it can be argued that some of Horan’s prose borders on euphuistic. The attitudes Horan gives the characters during their time in the South Seas are true to the period, but from a reader’s perspective they can come across as disingenuous. Louis’s and Fanny’s lives in Samoa are at times presented as too utopian, too idealistic, following the abundant strife the family endures. Ultimately, though, Horan’s wordplay is pure and beautiful, and her organization is impeccable. Her prose renders each page a pleasure to read, and she balances important aspects of the characters' lives so that one does not merit more attention than any of the others.
"Under the Wide and Starry Sky" is impressive in many respects. In addition to the aforementioned facets, the book also presents many philosophical ideas. The book is more mentally invigorating than many casual beach reads, but it just as enrapturing, if not more so. Plus, it is refreshing to read a story in which one half of a couple is presented with reasons to leave the other yet values the relationship and the other person too much to do so. Horan shows that love can be exhausting yet stimulating, hampering yet inspiring.
Overall, "Under the Wide and Starry Sky" is a greatly inspiring book. Aspiring artists, particularly aspiring writers, will find great joy in "Under the Wide and Starry Sky," as will those with a penchant for subtle, tastefully portrayed, deeply real romance. Horan gives readers the opportunity to enhance their understanding of the inner workings of a great author’s life, in this case an author without typical artistic struggles like alcohol or overt wealth but rather debilitating illness and a desperate hunger for greatness.
Title: Under the Wide and Starry Sky
Author: Nancy Horan
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: 2013
Page count: 474
List price: $26
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