Tag Archives: Ballantine Books

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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