Sunday, September 8, 2013

Under the Wide Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 4, 2013

The much-anticipated second novel by the author of Loving Frank, the beloved New York Times bestseller, this new work tells the incredible story of the passionate, turbulent relationship between Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his wild-tempered American wife, Fanny.In her masterful new novel, Nancy Horan has recreated a love story that is as unique, passionate, and overwhelmingly powerful as the one between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney depicted so memorably in Loving Frank. Under the Wide and Starry Sky chronicles the unconventional love affair of Scottish literary giant Robert Louis Stevenson, author of classics including Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and American divorcee Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. They meet in rural France in 1875, when Fanny, having run away from her philandering husband back in California, takes refuge there with her children. Stevenson too is escaping from his life, running from family pressure to become a lawyer. And so begins a turbulent love affair that will last two decades and span the world.

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Robert Louis Stevenson, portrait by Girolamo Nerli 
I began Nancy Horan's Under The Wide Starry Sky with high hopes, but ultimately liked the idea that behind the piece more than the reality. Though I found the narrative offered interesting perspective on Stevenson's personal life, the structure of the novel left much to be desired. Be warned, possible spoilers ahead. 

For one thing, I found the pacing of the novel particularly troublesome. I lost interest in the first few chapters, stopped, read two other books, then came back to it. It isn't that the story isn't intriguing, it was just so slow to progress that I had problems staying engaged with the narrative. 

Another aspect that made this piece something of a challenge was that I felt the telling unbalanced. Most of the book is told from Fanny's point of view, but there are a handful of episodes in which Horan pulls a one-eighty and writes from Stevenson's perspective. I found the inequality confusing and would have been much happier if the couple had enjoyed equal face time with the reader or if the author had limited herself to one or the other of her leads. 

Horan's treatment of Belle was similarly perplexing. The character is introduced to the reader early in the novel, but a personal rift between the girl and her mother removes her from the story for a large portion of the book. If Fanny or Stevenson had reflected on her at all during this separation, I might have felt the the emotional poignancy of their reunion, but they don't and the feelings Horan attempted to throw in at that last moment seemed to come entirely out of left field. I'm sorry, but was I supposed to care? 

There was enough material here for me recognize the story within these pages, but I think Horan might have taken on more than she could handle in her attempt to give that story life. I couldn't empathize with her cast or get lost in their experiences and at the end of the day, I needed to feel that connection to take more than a passing interest in this piece. 

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"I am wondering why you take whatever I say and misconstrue is, madam. You have known me five minutes, not nearly long enough to despise me. It usually takes at least ten."
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