I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan


This fictionalized account of the relationship between Fanny Van de Griff Osbourne Stevenson and Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous Scottish author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and a book of children's verse. 

Fanny leaves her philandering husband (he actually falls in love with these women and suggests Fanny be friends with them), Sam, in California to go to Antwerp, Belgium, in order to enroll in art classes with her daughter Belle.  She also brings along with her her sons, Sammy and Hervey.  When Hervey, becomes ill with consumption, she goes to a doctor in Paris for help, but he dies anyway.  When her grief drives her slightly mad, the doctor suggests she go to the French countryside for relaxation. 

There she meets Bob Stevenson, Louis's cousin, who helps her through her grief.  He was supposed to act awful and get the Americans to clear out, so his other friends could enjoy the cottage by themselves, but he can't do that.  Louis arrives by canoe after everyone else, and when he sets eyes on Fanny, who is thirty-six-years-old and he is twenty-six, he falls in love.  She, however, will have nothing to do with him at first.  Louis is wild and carefree and so determined to be a writer that he tells his friends to keep his letters for posterity.  Louis's friends do not really like Fanny and often make her feel like an outsider.  They also take no regard to his health and often wear him out and make him sick.

Fanny and Louis go back to Paris and begin an affair, which ends when her husband shows up after two years and wants her back.  So she goes back to California to try once last time to make a go of it, but it fails and she calls Louis to come to her in California. After a lengthy divorce, and Fanny losing her daughter Belle to a ne'er do well painter who is just like her father, Fanny and Louis are married, after she helps him get well. 

Louis was born with bad lungs.  A cold could kill him.  They would spend time across the globe trying to find the right place for him to get better.  He spent his childhood in bed dreaming and inventing stories.  Now, he writes stories from his bed, or has them dictated when his lungs are bleeding and he must not move an arm or he could die.  He learns to write with his left hand as his right often cramps up from his voluminous amount of writing he does.

Treasure Island was written as a story for Sammy.  He had a hard time writing a children's book about pirates and sailors with no cussing.  He had to invent fowl language, such as "shiver me timbers".  When he wrote Jekyll and Hyde, he made Jekyll an evil person, who wants to be able to get away with doing bad things, so he takes a potion to transform himself.  It is Fanny, his ever present listener and writing partner, who tells him that Jekyll should be both good and evil, as that is how everyone in the world is, and the reader will be able to connect with that.

On a trip to America, he discovers that the sea air is good for him, and he has never felt better, so they plan to take a yacht and travel the South Seas.   Six months soon becomes two years at sea, with many stops at various islands.  Poor Fanny can't handle the sea; she becomes sea sick at the thought of a boat, but endures it for him.  Soon, they find the perfect place to lay down roots: Samoa.   While homesick for his beloved Scotland, Louis makes his own place on three hundred acres and Fanny grows coffee and cacao.  They make the islanders who work for them their family.  Belle, who has finally made up with her mother, and her husband arrive to help out.  Louis is so healthy he can ride a horse and climb small mountains. 

Louis begins to write only about the natives and their struggle against the Germans, British, and Americans, who all want to take over the island.  However, no one in the civilized world is interested in hearing what he has to say.  They just want more books like the ones he has written, but the brownies (think Scottish fairies) are rarely visiting him at night anymore.  Islanders say that their land is haunted.  And perhaps it is, because after a couple of years, tragedy strikes both of them, and nothing is the same. 

This book was utterly fascinating.  I haven't read anything by Robert Louis Stevenson, though, now I am sorely tempted.  Fanny herself, was also a writer, though nothing on his scale, just a few short stories and a journal would be published.  Many who knew him, would write biographies about him, so the author had plenty of information to draw upon, including those letters of his.  I loved this book.  Fanny and Louis had a passionate love that was sometimes tender and sometimes explosive as Fanny had a temper and a great caring soul.  She gives up everything for this man, while he gives up living where he wants to live and his friends, whom he soon realizes aren't really his friends.  I can't recommend this book enough.  This is a must read!

Link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Under-Wide-Starry-Sky-Novel/dp/0345516540/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1464886655&sr=1-1&keywords=under+the+wide

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