Under the Wide and Starry Sky traces the relationship between Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny from shortly before the two meet. At that time, he was a young man still trying to decide his profession and she was a married woman, although separated from her husband, ten years his senior and with children.
Fanny Osbourne has a great creative urge, and she has moved to Paris for art lessons for both herself and her grown daughter Belle, leaving her philandering husband in America. Fanny meets Stevenson while on a recuperative visit to southern France after the death of her youngest son.
The novel follows closely the entirety of their relationship from courtship to his death and her life afterwards, mostly from Fanny’s point of view. They separate because Fanny wants to give her marriage another chance, but they finally come together again. Stevenson, called Louis by his friends, is a sickly man, and his health often requires them to move to climates that are better for his lungs. When it seems as though he cannot live much longer, they find that his health revives on ocean voyages, so they go to sea and finally settle in Samoa until his death.
Although Horan appears to follow faithfully the course and events of the couple’s life together, and the novel is interesting from that standpoint, she never really brings the characters or settings to life. Aside from Fanny’s devotion to Louis, Horan concentrates on her frustration at not being able to live her own creative life. The characters seem relatively flat.
I was struck also by how, on the original voyage to the South Seas, Horan describes almost nothing but one chieftain until they get to Samoa. If she was working from journals or letters, surely she could have researched further to find out or even imagine what the islands would have been like for Louis and Fanny, seeing them the first time. Instead, we come into their voyage toward the end, as if all the sights and experiences are routine. I’m missing the sense of wonder. Although this novel should have been fascinating in its focus on some amazing lives, it generally does not fulfill its promise.