I have an emerging benchmark for author-centered novels: if it doesn’t make me want to read the protagonist’s books, it isn’t that good. I knew The Paris Wife was a fantastic read when I found myself putting A Moveable Feast on my Classics Club list, despite the fact that I HATE Hemingway. Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky had the same effect on me. Despite the fact that I am not a fan of “boy” fiction, I have decided to read Treasure Island, because her story of the relationship between Robert Louis Stevenson and his feisty American wife, Fanny, was so compelling that I have to see for myself what that romance gave to English literature.
I am not sure that most people know that Scotsman R.L. Stevenson owes so much of his legacy to his indomitable, much older, American wife, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne. I certainly didn’t know it. They met when she escaped her philandering Californian husband to forge her own existence as an artist in Europe. When she left Europe to give her marriage a second chance and the behest of her family, Stevenson was devastated. But when she sent a telegram saying she was sick and needed him, he forsook his family and his own health and traveled in steerage to the US, and then across North America, just to rescue her. (Frankly, it makes Darcy spending a few hundred unearned pounds to buy off Wickham seem pretty shoddy, indeed.)
Horan writes directly but sensitively, so that you feel the characters’ turmoil, without ever hating them for their bad behavior. Fanny is quick-tempered but always sorry for erupting; Louis is a brooder, and sometimes seems ungrateful for all Fanny has sacrificed for him and his career. Their love story is jagged and gripping. But I actually think for me thesome of the best parts of the book were Fanny and Louis’ insights into their travels together, as in this reflection in the Pacific:
He was too much of a realist to romanticize the South Sea islanders or demonize the whites who traded with them and lived among them. But as far as he could see, not much good had come of Europeans bringing their notions of civilization. Of the islands they’d visited, it seemed that the ones with the least contact with the outside world had fared best. And in many places the kanakas, as the natives were called, had been hideously misused by the colonizers. p. 364-365
I recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction and literary fiction. But also to anyone who loved Treasure Island or Kidnapped or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Understanding Stevenson’s own problems with health and medicine, as well as his quest for the “perfect” climate to accommodate his frail lungs, will surely add complexity to those classics. I am looking forward to reading them myself, “boy” books be damned!
I read this as part of a TLC Book Tour. Thanks to Lisa for including me on the tour! Click here for links to other opinions about Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky.