I raved (and still do) about Loving Frank, so naturally I had very high hopes for Nancy Horan’s much-anticipated second book, Under the Wide and Starry Sky. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the love this time.
Horan has again delved into biographical fiction, this time chronicling the love affair between Scottish literary giant Robert Louis Stevenson (known as Louis), author of classics including Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and American divorcee Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne (shame on me, I have not read any of Stevenson’s stories).
“Louis suspected each of them, in his or her own way, was an exile – from bourgeois values, family crests, unhappy love affairs, childhoods too long spent in church pews.”
The book is billed as a ‘love affair that will last two decades and span the world’ and indeed that is the case.
“Gypsies. Vagabonds. Nomads. Those were the words Fanny had used since their marriage to cast their wanderings in a romantic light. But the words didn’t seem colourful or amusing or even accurate. 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.”
Unfortunately Louis and Fanny’s ‘wanderings’ make for a long and tiring read. Horan has provided a detailed account of the unconventional couple’s various homes – ranging from rural France and Bournemouth to the Napa Valley and Samoa, as well as commentary on Louis’s poor health (predominantly illnesses related to his lungs).
Horan clearly spent considerable time researching the story – it’s studded with detail, yet the detail did little to create interest in the characters in the way that was so perfectly achieved in Loving Frank.
While for the most part details were meticulous, there were some odd omissions and errors. For example, when Fanny’s daughter has a baby there is no mention of the baby’s gender or name and yet a page or so later, a full run-down on the French housemaid, her history and what she’s wearing is provided. It lacked balance. Similarly, a town is referred to by Fanny as being a number of kilometres away. Kilometres? Fairly sure the UK wasn’t on the metric system in the 1880s (I read an ARC so I have to assume an error such as this was picked up in the final editorial process).
In the characters of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney in Loving Frank, Horan found an unconventional couple and brought them to life on the page. The dialogue was convincing, the fictitious narrator reminded the reader that it was biographical fiction and descriptions of places and buildings were exquisitely re-imagined by Horan. The same cannot be said for Under the Wide and Starry Sky. Fanny and Louis may well have been unconventional for their time but I’m afraid that doesn’t necessarily make them colourful or even entertainingly eccentric on the page.
There were a handful of redeeming aspects to this story – references to Henry James (whose stories I wholly admire); references to Louis’s writing process (he waits for ‘The Brownies’ to come to him in his dreams to tell him stories); and Louis’s genuine interest in native cultures, certainly something that would have set him apart in the 1890s. There were glimpses of Horan’s light but rich touch when it came to setting the scene in places and times we will never know –
“Around them, a forest of masts creaked in the dark harbour. Beyond, the city was a black paper cutout, flat against the gray sky.”
However, I fear she spent her words on all the wrong things in this story.
1/5 Over five hundred pages of high-seas jaunts and malaise was three hundred pages too many. Disappointed.
I received my copy of Under the Wide and Starry Sky from the publisher, Random House, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
There are dozens of food references in this story, many of them exotic, many of them interesting however one in particular caught my eye – Fanny mentions the aroma of apple fritters in Antwerp. I’ve never had an apple fritter but I’m in love with the idea. And I also like the story behind Cook Republic’s apple fritters (mainly because I had a similar experience with my husband [although it involved dancing, not fritters]). For a traditional Dutch recipe, head over here.