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Under the Wide and Starry Sky: A Novel
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106 of 108 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine 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. Their finances are a bit of a mystery, as, when their relationship begins both Louis and Fanny are barely able to get by (his writing has not begun to sell), but over the next decades, they are always able to find the where-with-all to gain the medical help, recuperation, and travel they need - from family, friends and eventually from his writings. You will be easily caught up in their lives and those of Fanny's children from a previous marriage - and the friends and associates who make decisions about Louis's work that is influenced by their jealousy of his success and celebrity.

I didn't want this book to end - not only is it a great reading experience, it's a learning experience as well. I have a new respect for both Fanny and Louis Stevenson - and I am looking forward to re-reading Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and The Master of Ballantrae (which my father passed to me - his favorite book. ) At last, I am motivated to read it!
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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon January 25, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine 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. He teetered on the brink of death many times, but Fanny's determined care pulled him through again and again. Robert's damaged lungs kept them on the move as they searched for a climate that would improve his health until they finally discovered the benefits of the South Pacific and settled in Samoa with their extended family--her two children, a grandchild, and his mother.

Because of the letters and journals Horan is able to give a full-bodied picture of their emotional lives as well as their comings and goings and the circumstances of the age they lived in. One of the fascinations of this book for me was reading about the medical treatments of the day. Fanny and Robert lived in the late Victorian era that I can't seem to get enough of and were friends with Henry James among other notables of the time, but theirs was more a world of art and adventure than one of heiresses and aristocrats. This is a long book, 466 pages of story, but it made me feel such empathy with and interest in Fanny and Robert that I enjoyed it from start to finish and felt sad when it was over.
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73 of 82 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine 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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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
In this atmospheric novel author Nancy Horan (she of LOVING FRANK fame) presents her imaginative version of the real life relationship and marriage of Scottish novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne, the Indiana born divorcee and mother of three who encouraged and supported Stevenson in his quest to become a writer of note.

Focusing primarily on the main protagonists, this ambitious historical tale skillfully portrays not only the motivations, complex feelings and nomadic lifestyle present in the Stevenson's May-December marriage; it also depicts the vast number of peripheral characters, both noble and flawed, with true depth and magnitude managing to paint a vivid portrait of the mores and culture present in the late nineteenth century.

UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY is a novel culled from an excellent store of research and is a must read for lovers of historical fiction. At the hands of a lesser author, this might have become a cloying tale love and loss descending to the depths of pot-boiler. Instead, Horan has provided her readers with a captivating tale that sends you straight to your computer for an in-depth exploration of the fact and fiction contained in Horan's version. As it turns out, Horan has presented a very factual picture of the couple, their families and their contemporaries. Buy the book and you'll see what I mean.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
“Under the Wide and Starry Sky” does a great job of capturing the original spark and the ebb and flow of long-term relationships. I had read some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure yarns but didn’t know much about his personal life, so it was illuminating in that regard and especially so to learn about his unconventional wife, Fanny Osbourne. It’s always interesting to read about the kinds of things people had to overcome or endure to be together and to stay together. The book also gives us a close-up look at Stevenson’s creative process. It shows where he got his ideas and how he struggled and rewrote his books. It’s written in clear, accessible language in an episodic, chronological format. I thought the story sagged a little in the middle but by that time I cared enough about the characters that I wanted to go on to see what happened. An enjoyable read.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I really didn't like Fanny Stevenson. She made me gnash my teeth and scream to myself, "Oh no. She can't be saying that or doing that." She was quite the narcissist and put herself above anyone else. She uprooted her children from Oakland to Belgium and then to Paris. She thought she was an artist but when her daughter proved to be a better artist, the lessons started. When her son falls desperately ill, she doesn't reach out to her husband for help until it's almost too late. She meets Robert Louis Stevenson called Louis and has only eyes for him. She sends her 17 year old daughter, Belle, back to Paris by herself. As the relationship deepens she sends her son willy-nilly from schools to boarding schools without any input of what he wants.

Then she decides to return to Oakland and try to make another go with her husband. Louis is abruptly thrown to the curb. She gets ill in America and send for Louis. A quite sickly man, Luis makes the arduous trek from London to Monterrey to help her out. Once he arrives, she is better so she doesn't let him into recuperate but kicks him out. Worn out from the journey he collapses on the side of the road and strangers take him in and nurse him. Once healed Fanny decides she wants him. URGH.

This goes on and on. She tries to take credit for his work. She wants her name added as a co-author. She takes other people's story ideas, rewrites them and takes full credit. She does nothing on her own. I could find nothing that I liked about her and, frankly, I wouldn't have continued on with it except I was reviewing it.

Why did I give it two stars? The parts with Louis were quite interesting. I learned a great deal about him. The last third of the book about their lives in the South Seas was quite eye opening. Those two things saved the book. It could have easily been edited by 100 pages. I am once again bemoaning the lack of book editors. Please someone start editing these books and keep them to reasonable lengths. I hate just reading fillers. Would I recommend this book? NO.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I'm very nearly half way through this book, and I don't think I'm going to finish it. It is boring beyond all sense, which makes me sad because I really enjoyed "Loving Frank".
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Nothing for Fanny Osbourne is simple and easy. Life is complicated and she never shies away from the complications or the adventure. For the slight person she was physically she had a powerhouse of internal strength. Robert Louis Stephenson knew a good thing when he found her. He had a tenacity of spirit in spite of being physically unwell a good deal of the time. He followed Fanny half way round the world to make her his.
This is a wonderful book, filled with emotional moments on nearly every page. Ms. Moran is stellar at bringing out the happiness that was intrinsic to both Fanny and R.L.S. and then wrenching our hearts with the tragedies and hardships they endured. But above all, the love of these two souls shines through.
This is a long book, 472 pages. Never once did I want it to end or be shortened. In fact I wanted more, more of Fanny in her final years, more of Belle, her daughter. This is a book that will stay with you for a long, long time and perhaps inspire you to grab for the gusto, so to speak.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 25, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Way too much detail. Who cares what Fanny may have thought, done or etc. Some of this is based on diaries or other writings, but most of it is made up/fiction. Very boring. Speed reading or scanning moves it along.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, born in Indiana in 1840, had big dreams, but put them aside to follow her shiftless husband, Sam Osbourne --- first to Nevada, then on to California --- in an effort to help him realize his “get-rich-quick” schemes that never materialized. Even with her baby daughter, Belle, in tow, loyal wife and intrepid traveler Fanny followed her husband out west in a time when westbound travel wasn’t always safe for women and children. It didn’t take her long to discover that not only are his plans for financial success questionable, but his fidelity is also suspect.

With each passing year of their marriage, Sam began to be less concerned with his marital status and keeping up the appearances. Back within the confines of home base in San Francisco, Fanny tried to maintain a stable home life, “held her head high, pretending her husband’s philandering no longer hurt... In fact, every betrayal she discovered was a humiliating wound.” But after each duplicitous episode, there would be reconciliation. Two sons, Sam (who later changed his name to Lloyd) and Hervey, followed in due course. But even with three children to consider, Fanny knew marriage to Sam was not going to work.

Fanny had long put aside her aspirations for her husband and children, and now felt the time was right to go abroad, not only for her artistic endeavors but also to expand the children’s horizons. First stop would be Antwerp, where Belle and Fanny began taking art instruction and a move to Paris, the artistic center of the world, was inevitable. But as soon as their lives started to form to a creative routine, tragedy struck, and Fanny and her children found themselves retreating to the French countryside. While staying at a rustic retreat in the town of Grez, Fanny meets a cousin to aspiring writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who makes the introduction to the young man who was then still working as a humble attorney in his native Scotland. Although Stevenson, or R.L.S., as he was often referred to, was immediately smitten despite the age difference (Osbourne was over 10 years older than him), Fanny, still reeling over the loss of her son, needed a little time to get to know the young writer.

In due course, the attraction began to deepen and flourish. Before long, “she felt herself softening. Over the years she had made a near art of listening to men, no matter how boring; she perfected the interested gaze. But Louis was never boring; he was an extraordinary talker. And he listened to her --- closely enough that after a time he seemed to be reading her mind, anticipating what she would say next. They came from entirely different worlds yet shared a surprising number of common experiences.” And soon enough, the pair knew they were in love and had to be together.

But the path of true love never runs smoothly. Fanny had to return to America and get Sam to agree to a divorce, and Stevenson had to convince his stern parents to accept his new career as a writer, as well as his soon-to-be wife, an American divorcee with two children. Add to that the writer’s weak constitution; he was constantly plagued by lung ailments that would mar the rest of his life. Much of their time together would be spent seeking out warmer climes for him to breathe easier. Stevenson often credited his wife with keeping him alive, quite literally.

After being granted her divorce and a close call with Stevenson’s health, the pair finally married and began their lives together, which from that point forward meant a nomadic existence. They start with a visit to his parents’ home in Edinburgh, where Fanny wins over the formidable elder Stevensons with her charm and utter devotion to their son. They can clearly see she is mindful of his health as they have been. Under advice of doctors, Fanny and Louis relocate to Davos, Switzerland, hearing the Alpine air would help his lung ailments: “The truth was, Louis’s cruel illnesses whipped around their lives, pushed them toward places they didn’t want to go, and pulled them out of places they loved.” In between times of serious illness, Stevenson did manage to get a good deal of writing done, aided and sustained by the unwavering support of his loving wife.

In the intervening years, Stevenson published TREASURE ISLAND and THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, among many others. Her devotion to her husband notwithstanding, Fanny still harbored artistic ambitions of her own. Where once she fancied herself a painter, she had turned her creative eye to writing, a practice she enjoyed long before she met Louis. She proved a devout and steady editor and reader of her husband’s works-in-progress, but whenever she brought up the subject of her own work, she found herself quickly dismissed --- a slight that would arise time and time again throughout their marriage. It would take years and many teary fights before Stevenson would have the realization about “the truths about what happens when a person’s suppressed desires fester until they turn monstrous.”

Can two creative types co-exist in a marriage, or does someone always have to take a backseat to the other? In her first outing, LOVING FRANK, Nancy Horan touched on this very topic, as she chronicled the life of Mamah Borthwick, wife of Frank Lloyd Wright, a formidable artist in her own right. That novel opened up the private world and marriage of the two intensely private figures. In her latest book, she once again meticulously shows, through exhaustive research, the width and breadth of a complex marriage, in a story that proves enlightening as well as entertaining. Although it is a portrait of the writer and his wife/muse, it goes much deeper than that. It’s more about the marriage than the work. UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY is another engrossing addition to the canon of the recent “women behind the powerful, artistic men” historical novels we’ve seen lately, including Horan’s own LOVING FRANK, as well as THE PARIS WIFE and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.

After years of a vagabond existence, Louis and Fanny lived out the remainder of their married days on an island retreat in Samoa. In his later years, Stevenson realized that his true literary accomplishment had been his “doggedness,” and his wife’s “art was in how she had lived her own extraordinary life. She was her best creation.”

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller
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