Book review: ‘Under the Wide and Starry Sky’ by Nancy Horan

Posted Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Under the Wide and Starry Sky

by Nancy Horan

Ballantine, $26

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Meet the author: Horan will be featured in an Authors Live! event at 7 p.m. Feb. 11 at Highland Park United Methodist Church, in Wesley Hall, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, Dallas. Free. For more information, call 214-523-2249 or go to www.hpumc.org/authorslive.

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They say behind every great man is a great woman, and true love knows no limits. Bestselling author Nancy Horan takes these sayings to heart when she shares an amazing couple’s incredible life together in her new novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky.

This is the powerful love story of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his Indiana-born wife, Fanny Osbourne, 10 years his senior. Theirs is an unusual pairing. Both are artistic and open-minded but from completely different worlds. They are able to create a life together that spans the globe.

We first meet Fanny in Paris after she has fled California and her habitually unfaithful husband. She wants to start a new life with her children and study art. When her plans fall short, she has to make do, and we see her courage and determination take hold. Fanny has always found a way to make the best of every predicament she’s been put in. Then tragedy strikes her family, and Fanny begins to buckle. She finds her way to a rustic, bohemian hotel to regroup with her children. It is at the Hotel Chevillon that she meets the man who will change her life forever.

Robert Louis Stevenson is not yet famous. In fact, he’s still living off of his father and dodging the position in society that his father wants him to take. He and his father do not see eye to eye, especially about religion. Louis has been traveling by canoe, writing and enjoying freedom. As a fairly weak and sickly child, Louis spent a great deal of his life hampered by his frailty. Now he is a zealous adventurer who longs to write full-time.

For Louis, it’s love at first sight. But Fanny is still married and not looking for a May-December romance. The couple start spending time together as friends, which leads to a passionate partnership that rivals just about any literary coupling. Once they decide to take that next step, the adventure begins. Fanny and Louis lead a life that takes them through Europe, across America and to the South Seas.

Horan’s depiction of their life together is flawless. We are right there with the couple as they transform over the years. Louis’ illness rules most of their life, but his writing and her strong will keep them going. Fanny becomes Louis’ muse, nurse and collaborator. They blend their families, politics and careers.

Both partners are equally lovable and flawed. It’s impossible to take sides when all you want is a happy ending. When they struggle in their relationship, no one wins. Horan writes with just enough sympathy and color to keep us rooting for them.

Louis’ life is imitated in his art. Both he and Fanny successfully chronicle every adventure they experience, be it on land or at sea. They rely on each other for honest critiques and criticisms. It’s Fanny who convinces Louis to revise his first attempt at Dr. Jekyll. Together, they befriend a who’s who of literary and artistic masters, from Henry James to John Singer Sargent. They even become beloved by the royal powers that be and natives of numerous South Sea island tribes.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky is a perfect example of what a man and a woman will do for love, and what they can accomplish when it’s meant to be.

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