Book Review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

underthewideandstarryskyTitle: Under the Wide and Starry Sky
Author: Nancy Horan
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from the publisher for a tour with TLC Book Tours
Number of pages: 496
First line: “Where are the dogs?” Sammy asked, staring up at her.

Goodreads blurb: At the age of thirty-five, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne leaves her philandering husband in San Francisco and sets sail for Belgium to study art, with her three children and a nanny in tow. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her brood repair to a quiet artists’ colony in France where she can recuperate. There she meets Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who is instantly smitten with the earthy, independent and opinionated belle Americaine.

A woman ahead of her time, Fanny does not immediately take to the young lawyer who longs to devote his life to literature, and who would eventually write such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson’s charms. The two begin a fierce love affair, marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness, which spans decades as they travel the world for the sake of his health.

I didn’t fall under the spell of the hype surrounding Loving Frank, and so Under the Wide and Starry Sky was my first introduction to Nancy Horan’s brilliant writing. I mainly agreed to read it because I was interested in a fictionalized account of Robert Louis Stevenson’s life, not because of Horan’s reputation, but I now know that her reputation is well-deserved.

Horan has taken the historical record, including extensive writings and correspondence by Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, and crafted their story into a beautifully-written, turbulent romance. In many ways, these two people were not particularly suited to each other. They had so much going against them: age difference, Fanny’s marriage to the unfaithful Sam Osborne, Stevenson’s health. And yet, they fell deeply and passionately in love, and had eighteen tempestuous years together.

Fanny takes on a life with Stevenson, even though she knows that it will mean her life will be spent catering to his health concerns. Her artistic side calls out to the artist in Louis, as he is known, and yet her own art and writing is mostly lost in the wake of Louis’s fame and illness. His friends see her as an interloper, a distraction from his art, and treat her horribly. The fact that he doesn’t stand up for her often makes him an unlikable character, in my opinion.

Fanny herself is a complicated woman. She loves Louis passionately and sacrifices so much in order to care for him. And yet her own psychological demons rear up and often make her an unpleasant, off-putting person. Her relationships are all full of conflict, whether with Louis, her children, or Louis’s friends and publishing contacts. Even though there were elements of her personality that drove me nuts, I could completely relate to her internal struggles: marriage troubles, sacrifice of personal ambition, duty to husband and children.

There were a few sections of the book that seemed too long to me, and I do feel like it could have been edited down a bit to make it a more even read. A huge part of Fanny’s and Louis’s lifestyle is travel, in their endless quest to find a place where Louis’s lungs will be healthy. They finally find that place in Samoa. The portions of the book about their travels give the reader a glimpse of the clash between European and native cultures during the end of the 19th century.

I don’t feel hugely interested in the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, but because I enjoyed this book so much, I anticipate reading Loving Frank sometime in the future.

Thanks to the folks at TLC Book Tours, I am authorized to give a copy of Under the Wide and Starry Sky away to one of my readers.

~ One entry per person.

~ This giveaway is open to readers in the US only.

~ To enter, please leave a comment before 11:59 p.m. PST, Friday, March 7, 2014. On Saturday, March 8th, I will draw a winner whom I will contact for mailing information.

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19 Responses to Book Review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

  1. Michelle says:

    I know I’m in the minority here, but I really struggle enjoying novels that explore a famous writer or artist’s love life. There seem to be so many at the moment too. To me, it’s a form of voyeurism that just doesn’t sit well with me. I’m sure it’s a beautiful story. It just isn’t for me.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Michelle – that’s an interesting perspective – I’ve never thought about it that way! I wonder what these people would say if they knew their lives were now fodder for fiction? Hmmmm…..

      • Michelle says:

        Considering how many took steps to protect their privacy by requesting all correspondence be burned upon their death? I think quite a few would be quite upset. I’m not saying they are bad stories. I just don’t enjoy them as much as others do.

  2. I’ve always loved the cover for this novel. The more I read about this book, the more I want to give it a try. I wasn’t sure at first. Like Michelle, I am not particularly drawn to fictionalized books about author’s or famous people’s lives. Sometimes the pay off is worth it.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Wendy – I actually really enjoy this type of novel, usually. Melanie Benjamin’s books are of the same type – novelization of famous historical figures’ lives – and I adore her work.

  3. bermudaonion (Kathy)
    Twitter: bermudaonion

    I read another review that also said this one drags in places. I still want to read it because I loved Loving Frank.

  4. Kailana says:

    I really want to read this! I didn’t think it was for me when I first heard of it, but reviews have changed my mind. (Not from the U.S., which you know, but I always like to add that for give-aways not open in my neck of the world.)

  5. bn100 says:

    Nice honest review

  6. Anita Yancey says:

    I have been hearing some good things about this book. I love that it is also about Robert Louis Stevenson, which has always interested me. I really like the pretty blue cover. Thanks for having the giveaway.

  7. kandie says:

    I usually don’t read this book but from your review I would give it a try. I really had heard about this book.

  8. Pingback: Nancy Horan, author of Under the Wide and Starry Sky, on tour February 2014 | TLC Book Tours

  9. That is the same reason that I didn’t read LOVING FRANK but am really excited about this book. I’m glad to see that Horan’s reputation is deserved! It makes me want to read this book even more!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  10. Marie says:

    I’ve always heard good things about Loving Frank, but I haven’t read it yet. Even though it sounds like you weren’t crazy about Loving Frank, I’m glad to hear that you liked Under the Wide and Starry Sky. I was planning on reading that one first, anyway! 😉

  11. Susan says:

    I heard from another too that parts needed to be edited down which makes me hesitate to pick this one up, and that Fannie drives you nuts. Hmm. I’m just a tad hesitant. But it may be worth it.

  12. Elisabeth says:

    Am currently reading Loving Frank, which I am enjoying. Looking forward to reading UTWASS in the near future!