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Under the Wide and Starry Sky: A Novel Hardcover – January 21, 2014

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Editorial Reviews Review

Q&A with Author Nancy Horan

Nancy Horan

Your New York Times bestselling debut Loving Frank—named one of the best books of 2007 by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune—explored the true story behind Frank Lloyd Wright and his lover, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. What prompted you to turn to the Stevensons next?

Part of it was serendipity. I stumbled upon Robert Louis Stevenson while visiting the Monterey area, where he lived in 1879. Curiosity spurred me on. Why was he there? The more I learned, the more I saw how rich a character he was, how timely his life might be for contemporary readers. But equally engaging was Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, the California woman he fell in love with and pursued. Both Stevenson and Fanny were on their own journeys of discovery when they met. There were plenty of obstacles in their way, but they managed to marry, and their life together after that was marked by adventures and challenges worthy of a Stevenson novel. I felt immediately that they were good company, and I knew from the start they would remain so for the next four or five years—however long it would take to write their story.

At first glance, Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t seem to have much in common with Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, an American ten years his senior who left her philandering husband in order to pursue an artist’s life in France. Yet he fell passionately in love with her, crossing the Atlantic and the American frontier and risking his life in order to win her hand. Why were they so drawn to each other?

Louis, as he was known by his family and friends, was attracted to Fanny at first by her appearance. He spied her through the window of a French inn where she was dining with some of his artist friends, who had arrived before he did. He was smitten by her earthy good looks, her olive skin, her lack of stiffness. She was entirely unlike the young women his parents had in mind for him, and that was part of her attraction. She rolled her own cigarettes and carried a pistol. Since he was a boy, Louis had fantasized about a life of travel. As he grew to know Fanny, he discovered a fellow free spirit who’d had her own high adventures already. She had lived in Nevada mining camps, and in other ways exhibited the grit associated with pioneer women. Yet she was a lover of books and art who had artistic ambitions of her own.

Fanny was not immediately drawn to Louis. She thought he was charming and entertaining, but immature, eccentric, and a bit melodramatic. As she came to know him, though, she discovered his great talent as a writer, as well as his genuine decency. Stevenson was much loved for his kindness and generosity.

How did Fanny and Louis shape each others’ artistic lives and accomplishments? Has researching and writing Under the Wide and Starry Sky changed your view of such classics as Treasure Island or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

Fanny married Louis when he was a relatively unknown travel writer and essayist who was not yet able to support himself with his writing. He began writing novels after he was married to her. He trusted her critical opinions of his work, calling her his “critic on the hearth.” Some biographers believe she meddled too much in his work, yet Stevenson continued the practice of seeking his wife’s opinion for many years. Robert Louis Stevenson was a towering literary figure in the 19th century. Possibly Fanny’s greatest contribution to his achievements (aside from providing a living, breathing example of a complicated woman for his female characterizations) is the fact that her devoted attentions kept him alive despite his terrible ill health.

Simply rereading Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has made me appreciate him much more. The two books are very different. Treasure Island, which was serialized in Young Folks magazine when it first appeared, was viewed as a boy’s adventure story, and Stevenson got the reputation of being a children’s author after it was published. I think that reputation fell away with Jekyll and Hyde, which is dark, dark, dark. It is an allegory that strikes a chilling chord in most readers. Interestingly enough, most people today haven’t read it. Yet during the writing of my book, I was struck by how often the names Jekyll and Hyde appear in print, or are spoken in conversation. Even if the story is not read much today, people understand the theme of it quite well: that in most of us, a duality exists. We contain within ourselves the potential for both good and evil.

Did Stevenson shape Fanny’s literary accomplishments? In some ways, yes. She had written magazine pieces before meeting him, though she’d only published one before their marriage. Later, she wrote several short stories that made it into print. Publication of her stories may have occurred because of Stevenson’s influence with editors. Fanny and Louis collaborated on one collection of linked stories, entitled The Dynamiter, and a play called The Hanging Judge. Nevertheless, I believe Fanny felt frustrated living in the shadow of so popular a figure as her husband. She longed to be appreciated for something more than her value as his helpmeet.

What were some of the obstacles the Stevensons faced, and how did Fanny and Louis help each other navigate them? What made their relationship endure?

The greatest obstacle was Louis’s ill health. He suffered from a serious lung ailment that was thought to be tuberculosis, though some contemporary writers question that diagnosis and suggest that it may have been bronchiectasis. Treatment options for serious lung conditions were limited in the 19th century, and usually involved a change of climate. The Stevensons’ life together became a quest to find a climate that would allow Louis to get out of bed and regain strength and mobility. They lived in the Swiss Alps, the south of France, and Saranac, New York at the urging of Louis’s various doctors. Fanny performed any number of heroic feats to keep him alive, and to get him to safe places where he stood a chance of living longer.

For his part, Louis provided the emotional support Fanny needed to get through a difficult divorce; he also provided the artistic lifestyle she craved, reliability, and through his prolific writing, the financial security she would need if he died. The promise of security was not evident when she married him, though. He was near penniless at the beginning. What he offered her at that time was his gentle, hilarious, brilliant, devoted self. Why did their relationship endure? Certainly it was complicated and often thorny; different individuals might not have stayed the challenging course they faced. But for all their flaws and eccentricities, they loved each other and derived great pleasure from the other’s company. Stevenson was able to say, well along in his relationship with her, that marrying Fanny was the smartest thing he ever did.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Horan’s spectacular second novel (following book-club favorite Loving Frank, 2007) has been worth the wait. Brimming with the same artistic verve that drives her complicated protagonists, it follows the loving, tumultuous partnership of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his Indiana-born wife, Fanny Osbourne. Fanny, an aspiring artist still tied to her unfaithful first husband when they meet in 1875, is fiery, courageous, and the mother of two living children. Louis, a younger man whose frailty belies a joyous, energetic spirit, dreams of writing full-time. While he perfects his craft, she becomes his protector and editor-collaborator, accompanying him across Europe and America and finally to Samoa in hopes of healing his weak lungs. This is more than just another novel designed to honor the unsung accomplishments of a famous man’s spouse, though. Equally adventurous and colorful, Louis and Fanny could each command the story singlehandedly. Together, they are riveting and insightfully envisioned, including through moving depiction of how their relationship transforms over time. Horan also explores relevant social concerns, such as cultural imperialism and xenophobia, and how Stevenson’s life influenced his literary themes. An exhilarating epic about a free-spirited couple who traveled the world yet found home only in one another. --Sarah Johnson

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; First Edition edition (January 21, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345516532
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345516534
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (833 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #129,364 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nancy Horan, a former journalist and longtime resident of Oak Park, Illinois, now lives and writes on an island in Puget Sound.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

122 of 124 people found the following review helpful By Barbara McArthur VINE VOICE on December 21, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Perhaps you, like me, have never really given Robert Louis Stevenson much thought, beyond reading his books, which have become classics - Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Frankly, I chose this book to review because I was enthralled with Nancy Horan's first book, Loving Frank, the fictionalized account of the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. Both books center around very complex and sometimes very difficult men, and the women who love them to the point that they are willing to give up all personal ambition and commit to a life that tip-toes around their extreme self-absorption. There, the similarity ends, as you will find that Louis Stevenson (as he is called) can be very likable and charming - and, at times, a deep-thinking, kind-hearted companion.

Louis is a prolific writer in very poor health - and his companion and soon to be wife, Fanny, fills the role of not only guiding his writing choices, but also keeping him alive, during numerous bouts of illness caused by lung weakness. They literally travel the globe to find a climate and environment that will improve his quality of life and allow him to indulge in the non-stop writing binges which cause his health to falter. Sea air is found to miraculously restore good health, so Louis races around the boat deck while Fanny is below, consistently seasick. Fanny is not a complainer - her eye is on Louis and she is willing to endure just about anything to allow him to thrive and write. Fanny has great inner strength and creativity as well, and she is a wonder to read about.

Louis's friends love him, but few appreciate Fanny, which does begin to gnaw as years go by.
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44 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Jaylia TOP 1000 REVIEWER on January 25, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Usually I prefer biography to the fictionalization of an historical person's life. Even--actually especially--in the cases where little is known about a person I prefer a nonfiction portrait using what information there is enriched with details about the daily lives, culture, religious beliefs, and living conditions of the time and place where he or she lived rather than novelized speculations about a real person's deepest thoughts, emotions and yearnings. I was therefore initially hesitant to try this book.

In the case of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny potential novelists or biographers have lots of information about their inner and outer lives, much of which the two of them wrote themselves in journals, letters, and stories. So why read this novel when there are several biographies that made use of the same background materials? Because author Nancy Horan used those sources to breath life into layered characterizations of Fanny, Robert, and their friends and families, creating the kind of deeply moving story that is good fiction's unique strength. When nonfiction manages to be this compelling it's often described as being as gripping or emotionally rich as fiction.

Bohemian vagabonds, Fanny and Robert had a passionate relationship and were devoted to each other, but they were not without problems. Like her husband, Fanny had the soul of an artist. She painted and wrote, and she lived her life in large and creative ways, but she often felt marginalized by her husband's friends and fans, and sometimes felt devalued even by Robert himself. Several times when tragedies struck Fanny struggled through bouts of madness. Robert spent much of his life as an invalid, but an invalid who embraced the giddy joys of living all the more for his times of illness.
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82 of 93 people found the following review helpful By Bella Rosa VINE VOICE on December 14, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In 1875, Fanny Osborne had finally had enough of her husband's philandering, so she took her three children to Belgium, ostensibly to study art. A family tragedy sends her to the French countryside to recover, and it's there she meets first Bob Stevenson, and then his cousin Louis.

Letting her down gently to pave the way for Louis, Bob tried to sell Fanny on Louis' good points. "His main condition is being giddy with life." Much later (some 400 pages), Fanny tells someone else, "It's sad that I didn't fully understand at the time what a gift his cheerfulness was."

After finishing this novel, I don't think Horan fully understood it, either. Granted, the Stevensons frequently faced grim circumstances - Fanny's divorce, Louis' health, bouts of poverty, disputes with friends and family. But even in the happy times, this narrative seems to plod through its laundry list of events to mention and move on. Bob tells us his cousin frequently made people laugh hard enough to lose control, gasping for air, but that person never actually shows up in the story of his own life.

I didn't know anything at all about Stevenson's personal life, so from that standpoint the book was interesting. It shares several themes with Horan's first book, Loving Frank: a woman with children divorces her husband, in an age where that's grounds for social ostracization, to devote herself to a talented but problematic man. Both Mamah and Fanny struggled not to let their own creativity be subsumed by their husbands' charisma. But I wonder if perhaps the Stevensons' lives were a little too well documented to give Horan her own creative room.
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