I’m still not sure what I want to tell you about this book. A few days ago on Twitter there was a conversation amongst some Cannonballers about which reviews are the hardest to write – the scathing or congratulatory. I weighed in that the scathing were easier to write, and the congratulatory ones take the most time to craft. What I forgot to take into account, and what would come home to roost this week, is that the “it had such great potential and then it shit the bed” reviews are perhaps the most soul crushing. But first let’s back up to the beginning.
I can’t be completely sure where I heard about this book and added it to my to-read queue. There was something about the conceit of Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky that jumped out to me and I thought to myself yes, I absolutely want to read a novelized version of the life of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson. And the title is so beautiful, pulled from RLS’s own work. But I could have prepared myself for what I was running into if I’d paid slightly closer attention to the fabulous Jen K’s review from last year. But we each have to learn for ourselves I suppose.
Once I got started reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky I sailed through the first 200 pages happily enjoying the layered ways in which the story of these two seemingly incompatible people end up deeply in love and building a life together. We get to see Paris and Antwerp in the 1870s, artist colonies in southern France, as well as the messiness of a late 19th century divorce and Louis’ chronic lung illness. The story was heading for a four star rating. And then the wheels came off. There is a fantastic story here, the story of two interesting, eccentric people finding themselves, a developing love story, and how it all affected the writing of Robert Louis Stevenson. But, it’s strangled by too much information, too much research, and too much unnecessary detail.
I was no longer able to sink into the story and enjoy as Ms. Horan’s research became the star of the show, not her writing. I think this may be a case of the author falling too much in love with her research. And immaculately researched this book is. Horan went to the primary sources, to various collections of the Stevenson’s’ letters, their writings, and the writings of the friends and family to put the real words of these people onto the page. But in attempting to give us all of the information she sacrificed her narrative. At the end of the book I am only left with the notion that the life of Robert Louis Stevenson was unendingly difficult, and that choosing to live life with him made Fanny’s life even more difficult than it already was. I am left with no greater meaning or reason for this work’s existence.
As I pressed on I was less and less able to sink in to the reading. And I can only piece together that it is the fact that the back half of this book is hardly more than a travelogue and medical account without a narrative through line which is the cause. And perhaps the most aggravating component is that it could have been avoided. There are any numbers of editorial choices which could have been made which would have streamlined the narrative and not lead to a sometimes unreadable encyclopedic work (which is something the characters fight about on the page in reference to his posthumously published In the South Seas!) I found myself wishing time and time again that Ms. Horan had simply gathered up the litany of different dwellings and attempts to keep Louis alive into one very long post script or epilogue.
In case you think I’m being particularly precious about this being a long book (it does clock in at nearly 470 pages but that’s not typically something that bothers me) the reader follows the Stevensons to nearly a dozen different locations following their marriage. And we’ve already been with them for no less than 5 before that time. This is a couple always on the move, but other than wearing on the reader the same way it wears on Fanny and Louis, I don’t understand the reasoning behind including all of it in this work.
Beyond the sheer amount of information there were several authorial choices I was left questioning, foremost being the limited use of the actual archival letters of the people in question. At around the 325 page mark Horan uses one of Fanny’s letters to move the plot forward, just a few months. It is the first time this is done, and only one of about three times it happens. It is underused. Give me more of their writings and jump the story along! The other thing that never settled for me was the change in point of view. For most of the book, and nearly all of the beginning, we are with Fanny. And every so often for short chapter bursts we are with Louis. It never really works, and the timing of when to switch rarely felt natural.
So I’m left with much to say about a book that I wouldn’t recommend you finish. Read the first half, stop whenever you like, and get the rest of the details about Robert Louis Stevenson’s extraordinary life from another non-fictionalized source.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.