Under the Wide and Starry Sky
by Nancy Horan

Ballantine Books, 2014. ISBN 978-0-345-51653-4.
Reviewed by Juliet Porton
Posted on 06/25/2014

Fiction: Historical

Nancy Horan's first novel, Loving Frank, told the story of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, a larger-than-life woman who had an affair with architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 1900s, while they were both married to other people. Her latest, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, is a fictionalized account of another real-life, strong-willed woman who was scandalously attached to a so-called "great man" of his day.

In Starry Sky, that woman is Fanny Van de Grift, an American who has left her home in California for Europe with her three children in tow, trying to disguise her desire to leave a cheating husband as art lessons on the Continent for the sake of her horrified family. She ends up in France, mourning an unimaginable loss and trying to escape her own choices and circumstances, where she meets a young Scottish writer named Robert Louis Stevenson.

A decade younger than Fanny and of perpetually ill health and wildly good spirits, Stevenson seems to offer the second chance that Fanny desperately needs, not only to find a romantic partner but to find an equal. So begins their decades of struggle and adventure, as they travel the world, together and apart, trying to stay ahead of Stevenson's chronic health problems and their ever-present financial worries.

Stevenson's exhaustive work habits had a grave effect on his health, as he would work for days and nights on end, sometimes eating very little, in an attempt to save money to support Fanny and her children. For her part, Fanny constantly had to face the indignity of seeing herself as a creative person (a painter and published writer in her own right) who was viewed by society as just Stevenson's mistress, and later, wife. She was often dismissed and disliked by his tight-knit band of European writer friends, to whom "American" and "savage" were synonymous. She was not a woman who made female friends easily, so her loneliness and dependence on Stevenson grew through the years. I can't promise you'll like Fanny by the end of the book, but you may well identify with her or thank your lucky stars that you were born into different times.

My biggest complaint with the novel is that it moved slowly in places. In hardback, it came in at almost 500 pages, which I think could have been tightened up considerably without the story losing its bearings. Horan's research was impeccable, but at times exhaustive without really moving the story along. That being said, just as I often feel after reading author biographies, I found myself wanting to jump directly from this book into Stevenson's writing. Horan recounts the tortured background to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a way that brings to life all the frustration Stevenson felt while trying to write something shockingly modern and commercially viable at the same time. Treasure Island very sweetly began as a bedtime story for Fanny's young son, Sammy. I recommend this book for anyone who prefers getting their history lessons delivered as I do, with a touch of drama, romance, and South Seas adventure.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Nancy Horan is an author and journalist, living on an island near Seattle with her family. Her first novel, Loving Frank, won the 2009 James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction. Visit her website.

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