Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

Under the Wide and Starry SkyBy the time I got round to reading this book I had completely forgotten the synopsis and had no idea what to expect. I decided to keep it a surprise. Imagine my delight when Robert Louis Stevenson leapt in through a window several chapters in and I remembered that this is a fictionalisation of his remarkable life. Louis, as he’s know to his friends, falls for Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a married American, who is in France to escape from an errant husband and learn art with her children. At its heart, this is a love story. As a reader, I grew to love Fanny and Louis, rooting for them through separation, illness, poverty, war and artistic differences. 

‘In the end, what really matters? Only kindness. Only making somebody a little happier for your presence.’

It was fascinating to learn about Stevenson in context – persevering with adventure stories when Zola et al. were driving a realist movement. Horan has excellently combined historical detail, world events and family moments. She interweaves neat prose with Scottish, literary and archaic language. I love being reminded of words I haven’t seen in a long time like, ‘gloaming’, ‘flageolet’ and ‘cairn’. New language is introduced again as they sail around the South Seas and settle in Samoa.  

I did lose track a little of some of the large supporting cast of characters, but such is the nature of real life. Horan has achieved a level of cohesion that is hard to impose on true stories. It is a long novel, but it captures a lifetime. It is authentic and natural, and yet still a great adventure. 

Treasure IslandThere are knowing touches that make this a true pleasure to read. For example, near the start of the book, before Louis has written his most famous works, Fanny’s young son turns to him and says: 

“Tell me a pirate story.”

Many thanks to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for this review copy. 

I am really into fictionalisations of real lives at the moment. Do you have any to recommend?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

  1. Great review! Thought you might be interested in my short film “Death Is No Bad Friend” about Robert Louis and Fanny Stevenson in San Francisco: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/death-is-no-bad-friend/x/1089930 Best regards, G. E.

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