I sat down to read Under the Wide and Starry Sky: A Novel, by Nancy Horan, with positive expectations of a good read. The subject matter appealed to me: a love story regarding Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne and the writer Robert Louis Stevenson.
Having read Stevenson’s works throughout the years, I was looking forward to the novel, of almost 500 pages, which opens regarding Osbourne’s leaving her husband behind in America, and traveling to Belgium with her three children to begin a career in the art world. Her son’s illness sees her in the countryside of France, for recovery, and there she meets with Robert, the cousin of Stevenson. As we delve a bit further through the pages, the reader is taken to the moment that Osbourne meets Stevenson (known as Louis) and is introduced to him. From there begins a story of their relationship, which eventually turns to marriage.
Their relationship is a tempestuous one, filled with emotional ups and downs, ill health regarding all parties, and twists and turns as far as reconciliation with her husband, which she does try to do, but eventually returns to Europe and back to the waiting arms of Louis. Her interactions with Louis and his career seem to foster a need for her to prove herself an equal, in an age when women were looked upon as less than equal to men. Societal mores were strong, and I think this played a role in her ability to stand her ground among those who were frowning upon her behavior and goals. It seemed to me that society and strict ideals played a part in Osbourne’s lack of emotional strength, along with Stevenson’s poor health.
Osbourne seems to me to have been a bit mentally unstable. She didn’t cope well with the mundane, although she did nurse Stevenson back to health on a few occasions. He was not a healthy man, to say the least, and in my opinion it became too much for her to handle, causing her to break down, emotionally.
Horan’s research is strongly apparent within the book, regarding events, through documentations, letters, journal entries, etc. Her command of evoking illuminating word-images is strong. Her ability to capture a scene of time and place is brilliant, as is her strength in emitting prose that fills the senses.
Horan’s scenarios regarding their travels were quite vivid and breathtaking, especially pertaining to the South Seas. She was masterful in creating those images. I could understand Stevenson’s desire to write the novels he did, after exploring their natural beauty and wonder.
Yet, that was not enough to establish me in their lives. For one thing, I thought that there could have been two distinct novels, one for Osbourne and one for Stevenson. I felt the back and forth interplay of both of their lives a bit too much. I would much rather the novel had been told from one specific point of view, regarding one person and their life moments, including their relationship with the other person.
I was disappointed, although Nancy Horan’s writing and depictions are highly illuminating, as is her documentation. I was expecting more from Under the Wide and Starry Sky: A Novel, than I received. Sometimes that happens, and this was one of those times.