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Under the Wide and Starry Sky    by Nancy Horan order for
Under the Wide and Starry Sky
by Nancy Horan
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2014 (2014)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Nancy Horan shed light on life and love, feminism and architecture in Loving Frank. Her new novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, surpasses it. In it, she ushers readers into the life of Robert Louis Stevenson (Scottish author of many great works, including Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Travels with a Donkey and Jekyll & Hyde) and his relationship with Fanny Osbourne, an American woman ten years his senior.

We meet Fanny as she arrives in Antwerp after travelling six thousand miles, first cross country from California to New York and then across the Atlantic with her teen daughter Belle, a nanny and small sons Sammy and Hervey. They have come to Europe so that Fanny and the talented Belle can 'study figure drawing and painting'. They left behind Fanny's philandering husband Sam.

Unfortunately Hervey becomes ill and they move on to Paris to consult an American doctor. They settle in Montmartre, but learn that Hervey has scrofulous tuberculosis. Months later he is gone and Fanny will never forgive herself for his loss. Her doctor and friends suggest a retreat to an inn at Grez near the Fontainebleau Forest, which is where she meets Louis' cousin Bob and eventually Robert Louis Stevenson himself.

Louis had a childhood plagued by illness. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as an architect. When that plan fell through he had Louis take a law degree. But Louis, 'an artist in a family of proper engineers', wants only to write. And he quickly falls for Fanny Osbourne. She takes longer to succumb to his advances, but does agree with Bob that 'He makes everyone around him a little better, a little brighter.' When Fanny returns to California, Louis follows her there at great risk to his health.

The novel follows their vagabond life together as Louis writes and Fanny nurses him in his frequent (often near death) illness. There are many moves in search of a healthier environment for Louis, from Scotland to the Swiss Alps to Bournemouth to Hawaii, the South Seas and Samoa. The plight of the islanders reminds Louis of his own Scottish Highlanders and he takes up their cause, concerned that 'not much good had come of Europeans bringing their notions of civilization.' In the meantime, Fanny works obsessively on a plantation on their large property, to the detriment of her mental health.

The title of the novel comes from the poem Stevenson composed for his gravestone: 'Under the wide and starry sky, / Dig the grave and let me lie. / Glad did I live and gladly die, / And I laid me down with a will. / This be the verse you grave for me: / Here he lies where he longed to be; / Home is the sailor, home from sea, / And the hunter home from the hill.' Nancy Horan is particularly good at portraying the challenges of the artistic life (and of being the artist's wife). I already know that Under the Wide and Starry Sky will be one of my favorite novels of 2014.

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