Under the Wide and Starry Sky
As in Loving Frank, Horan has again re-imagined life with a famous man through his love interest. American Fanny Osbourne leaves her cad of a husband for Europe, where she meets Robert Louis Stevenson; despite a ten-year age difference and disparate backgrounds, they begin an affair. Knowing the aspiring writer cannot support her, she returns to her husband, but eventually ends her fence-straddling, divorces, and marries Stevenson. The novel charts their time together through Stevenson’s rise as an author, his devastating health problems, and an impressive array of world travel.
Horan’s writing style is mostly “tell” rather than “show,” but the novel has a variety of strengths: it seems well-researched, looks at things from both Louis’s and Fanny’s perspective, and is proficient at portraying the petty jealousies of Stevenson’s literary coterie and the entrenched prejudice against and condescension for Americans. As a character, Stevenson shows progression, moving from an immature twenty-something to a more introspective, understanding individual. Fanny, unfortunately, is stagnant: while she’s a tireless nurse for Louis, she hates his friends, and her anger at not being considered as brilliant and creative as her husband (by him or anyone else) is unleashed in volatile outbursts. This creates an endless cycle in their relationship which makes for slow reading, especially during the middle section of the book, a chronicle of bickering. E.g.:
“You treat me like your jailer!” Fanny shouted…
“Why must you always expect the worst possible outcome for everything?”
Fanny stood up and put her face close to his. “Why must you go around chirping like a canary, pretending everything is perfect? It is so wearisome.”
“You are wearisome! Stop trying to manage every minute of my bloody life!”
Wearisome, indeed. The beginning and final sections of the novel are much stronger, and descriptions of the couple’s time in Samoa are especially engaging. Final tally: this book is uneven, but fans of women’s fiction may find much to enjoy in this story of an indomitable woman’s relationship with an artistic man.