Book Review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky
Ballantine Books – January 2014
Summary from the publisher:
At the age of thirty-five, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne has left her philandering husband in San Francisco to set sail for Belgium—with her three children and nanny in tow—to study art. It is a chance for this adventurous woman to start over, to make a better life for all of them, and to pursue her own desires. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her children repair to a quiet artists’ colony in France where she can recuperate. Emerging from a deep sorrow, she meets a lively Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who falls instantly in love with the earthy, independent, and opinionated “belle Americaine.”
Fanny does not immediately take to the slender young lawyer who longs to devote his life to writing—and who would eventually pen such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson’s charms, and the two begin a fierce love affair—marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness—that spans the decades and the globe. The shared life of these two strong-willed individuals unfolds into an adventure as impassioned and unpredictable as any of Stevenson’s own unforgettable tales.
I wanted to read this book because as a child I loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. That book stirred my imagination for a long time and I often wondered what the author was like. Although I knew Under the Wide and Starry Sky was not a biography, I hoped it would show me that Robert Louis Stevenson had indeed known adventure as well as a happy life.
After reading this new book, I feel better about this beloved classic childhood author. He certainly did live an adventurous life. I gain a good understanding of Louis (as he is called), but I must say that I especially loved the very plucky Fanny.
Since divorce was not a good option for a woman of that time period, Fanny took herself and her three children out of San Francisco and set off for Europe. The first section of the book does an excellent job of developing Fanny’s story.
After a short time in Europe several horrible things happen. When Fanny finally decides to retire with the children to the French countryside, life turns to the positive for her. And, here is where she meets Louis Stevenson.
The meeting of Fanny and Louis reminded me of a classic romance novel without all the heavy drama. When they first meet, Fanny doesn’t like Louis at all. But Louis is persistent and charming and, as in all good romances, love wins out.
Although I’m comparing the story to good romance novels, this is not a romance novel in the modern sense of the genre. This is the work of an excellent writer and is considered good literature. However, it is the story of a love between two beautiful, spirited people. It was a pleasure to see how Fanny’s life opened up and truly blossomed after meeting Louis. Nancy Horan is to be praised for her interpretation of two historical figures. Its a long book (nearly 500 pages) but worth every page. I strongly recommend it.