Day 452: Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Cover for Under the Wide and Starry SkyUnder 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.

http://www.netgalley.comI 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.

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10 thoughts on “Day 452: Under the Wide and Starry Sky

  1. Cecilia January 8, 2014 / 12:03 pm

    I saw this title recently and was wondering about it. Your review is helpful. Sorry to hear that it wasn’t quite up to expectation 😦

    • whatmeread January 8, 2014 / 12:05 pm

      No, I had great expectations for it. But I suppose other people might enjoy it. I realize I’m more picky than other people.

  2. Carolyn O January 8, 2014 / 1:00 pm

    I felt as if I should read this, but it wasn’t pulling me in — now I don’t feel bad about it!

  3. literaryvittles January 8, 2014 / 2:27 pm

    I feel like this is often a problem for “historical fiction” focusing on supposedly fascinating characters – it requires a lot if the authors; i.e., both historical accuracy and literary talent.

    • whatmeread January 8, 2014 / 2:32 pm

      Yes, but I historical fiction of any kind should accomplish both–be able to create a believable historical setting and depict interesting characters and situations. If they lack either of these, it’s like a mystery novelist who can’t plot. I feel like I’m seeing a lot of flat characters lately, ones that don’t feel like well-developed people, whose voice I don’t have a sense of, for example. When a strong narrative appears, it really stands out.

      • literaryvittles January 8, 2014 / 2:38 pm

        Oh I completely agree! I guess sometimes it can be difficult for biographers to make the subjects of their inquiry seem exciting. Often the minute details of people’s lives aren’t that interesting. Or else it’s a case of the biographer not having a nuanced understanding of the person he/she is writing about. Suffice it to say I don’t read many biographies/pseudo-biographies – I think it’s a tricker genre than most.

      • whatmeread January 8, 2014 / 2:42 pm

        Yes, maybe, although in this case I felt like she ignored obvious opportunities to create some drama and interest. What was it like to see those first South Pacific islands, for example? Straight nonfiction biographers have this problem, too, only worse. People may actually have been interesting and lead interesting lives, but if the biographer isn’t up to the task of conveying that, well then. Sometimes they get into so much minutia that anyone would be bored. Often they seem to be so worried about portraying the person in a way that he or she was not that they just talk about facts instead of trying to convey the sense of the person.

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