Book Review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky
by Nancy Horan
Ballantine Books, 2014
The leaden somnolence of Nancy Horan’s surprise hit 2007 debut novel Loving Frank was slightly counterbalanced by the fact that its spotlight lovebirds, Frank Lloyd Wright and Martha Borthwick Cheney, were both thoroughly abominable people. Oh, Horan did her best, in page after page of that grinding, obvious prose so favored by the American book-groups that made Loving Frank a hit, to portray Cheney as something of a three-dimensional proto-feminist and even the loathsome Wright as a flinty but basically decent misunderstood artist, but Horan is a conscientious researcher, and the inconvenient truth kept peeking out.
There’s a diverting doctoral thesis to be written about this phenomenon of involuntary verisimilitude, especially since in her latest novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, Horan is at it again.
Less successfully this time, because the counterbalance is missing. This novel – much longer and much more pleasingly ambitious than its predecessor – dramatizes the marriage of Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne. This is rich ground for fiction, as it has been for biography in the last century: the couple had a strange dynamic, enticing to unravel. The cleaned-up reactions of Stevenson’s friends and family were laudatory of Fanny – there are hymns of praise on record to her patience and constancy in the face of Stevenson’s frequent terrifying bouts of illness brought on by consumption (and by the fact that he smoked from the moment he woke up in the morning until the moment he passed out at night; by the final months of his life, his lungs looked like muddy shoestrings). But outside the cordon of approved approval, there have always been murmurs about Fanny. Stevenson’s best biographer refers to her as a very rum character. Henry James – no slouch when it came to assessing women – simply called her monstrous. If she was supportive of Stevenson, she was also endlessly critical; if she tended his very real illnesses, she also tended her own many psychosomatic ones; if she loved him, she also envied him.
Since the gentler usages of the Age of Betty Friedan have largely retired the word “termagant,” Horan is forced to ransack her store of euphemisms when describing Fanny – among many others, we get “tempestuous” “earthy” “independent,” and “opinionated.” And the fact that Fanny was insufferable wouldn’t necessarily sink the novel, except that Stevenson was widely known as one of the no-strings-attached nicest, sunniest people on Earth. One of the book’s characters describes him as “giddy with life,” and it’s nothing less than the truth. Even dutiful Horan is infected by the sheer joy Stevenson radiated (it’s impossible not to be, really, when reading the man’s letters); her descriptions of his happy reactions to events sometimes catch that joy wonderfully:
He threw back his head and let go a giddy laugh when the wine hit his tongue. Pure gladness coated his mouth, slid down through his chest, lit up his arms and legs. My God, how joyful a picture the dining room made. It looked as warm as a Flemish painting, all golden and peopled by dear friends and ragged, lovely strangers.
This too much joy of living was undimmed by the dire state of Stevenson’s health, as Fanny herself notices on more than one occasion:
What astounded her was how close to the gates of death he could be at one moment and how alive he could be the next. After a nightlong assault of coughing, he might awaken unable to speak; or, he might sit up, ask for oatmeal, and announce he’d come up with a new story idea.
This astounding vitality lifts most of the Stevenson-related passages in Under the Wide and Starry Sky above the nerdy muddle that appears to be Horan’s natural range. When she follows her couple to the Davos tuberculosis sanitarium nestled high in the Alps (Fanny accompanied her husband in order to care for him and then threw one hysterical scene after another; the scenes are spun as heartfelt drama in these pages, but again, the awkward truth will peep out to any reader not from small-town Iowa), Horan is actually insightful on the odd resilience Stevenson could find within himself:
Louis realized he was far better equipped to survive solitude than Fanny. He could retreat for hours while buccaneers or truant sons played about the hills and furrows of his brain, even if they never made it onto the page. Louis had been escaping the stupefying lassitude of sickness in just this way for as long as he could remember. And when the words were doing what he wanted them to do on the page, he could soar above everything, even the sickbed.
That’s just wonderful – it’s not only perfectly accurate, it’s very well-put. Alas, Stevenson isn’t alone in the novel. Every time he starts to soar under Horan’s pen, she shows up, and Horan is forced (or perhaps does so willingly, the poor thing?) to accommodate the delusions that have long since hardened into fact in the Stevenson family lore. Take as one example a scene where Fanny is acting as her ailing husband’s amanuensis:
During the hours she wrote for him, Fanny fell under the spell of his storytelling. She found herself whiling away hours with him as he processed one plot approach after another. She loved collaborating with him, but it was not her only work; there were meals to cook, sheets to change, bedpans to empty.
If you can turn your admiring gaze for a moment from that amazing combination of writing and meal-cooking (all no doubt done while “I’m a Woman” plays in the background – “W-O-M-A-N”!), you’ll notice that Horan does in that passage exactly what Fanny did in real life: she slips so easily from dictation to “collaboration” that you might hardly notice they’re two separate things.
The novel moves in unruffled linear progression; we get England, the United States, the voyages, and the final Samoan sanctuary at Vailima, and we get faithful re-creations of the genesis of Stevenson’s great works. The minor works, at which Stevenson was always busy, are barely mentioned – not because Horan hasn’t researched them to a fare-thee-well, but no doubt because she doesn’t want to bore the thousands of her readers who will be under the impression Stevenson wrote nothing but Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (this might be mistaken protectiveness, since Stevenson, uncannily, never wrote a boring paragraph). There are numerous points where Horan seems so steeped in the argot of Stevenson’s day that she begins to think and talk in it herself, using “whoreson” as an adjective when none of her characters are around, for instance, or abandoning 21st century medical knowledge long enough to write, “The constant anxiety, the enforced diet, and the frantic work pace took its toll: Louis fell ill with malaria.” (The vile Anopheles mosquito is off the hook – at least until Horan writes a novel about malaria savant Ronald Ross and his obnoxious wife Bessie Bloxam)(“Dearest, might the disease not be carried by a parasite?” “By thunder, Bessie, you’re right! What a woman you are! Is supper ready?”)
Horan doesn’t absorb quite enough of Stevenson’s writing style to fix the defects in her own, which is full of lazy modern idioms (“she’s the one,” a love-smitten Stevenson tells a friend; “Have I told you today that you are amazing?” Fanny asks him; Stevenson always has “a zany story” for his friends; people “hem and haw” and often “clap eyes” on things,” etc). But such annoyances probably won’t matter to the book’s target audience – those extremely forgiving (and remunerative as all get-out) book-clubs that couldn’t get enough of Loving Frank. And if any of those book-club readers, looking up from Under the Wide and Starry Sky, dimly sense that a vaster world awaits them in Stevenson’s own work, those endlessly enchanting stories will be there to welcome them.