January 9, 2014

Stories Are My Refuge

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

Release Date: January 21, 2014
Publisher: Random House | Ballantine
Pages: 496 pages
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Amazon)
At the age of thirty-five, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne has left her philandering husband in San Francisco to set sail for Belgium - with her three children and nanny in tow - to study art. It is a chance for this adventurous woman to start over, to make a better life for all of them, and to pursue her own desires. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her children repair to a quiet artists' colony in France where she can recuperate. Emerging from a deep sorrow, she meets a lively Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who falls instantly in love with the earthy, independent, and opinionated "belle Americaine."

Fanny does not immediately take to the slender young lawyer who longs to devote his life to writing - and who would eventually pen such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson's charms, and the two begin a fierce love affair - marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness - that spans the decades and the globe. The shared life of these two strong-willed individuals unfolds into an adventure as impassioned and unpredictable as any of Stevenson's own unforgettable tales.

Thoughts on Under the Wide and Starry Sky
This cover caught my eye the minute I saw it on NetGalley, and then I fell in love with the poetic title. Finding out it was fiction based on Robert Louis Stevenson? SOLD. I've talked about it before on my blog, but I'm a total sucker for historical fiction based on the lives of real people. They almost always leave me dying to research more about the book's subject! I was hoping Under the Wide and Starry Sky would be the same kind of read.

Stevenson is most widely known as the author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island. While I haven't read either novel, I know him more from his verses and poems for children. But even with that small bit of knowledge of his work, I knew almost nothing about his life. So, I was really excited to begin reading this story.

Similarly to The Paris Wife, Under a Wide and Starry Sky book focuses on the perspective of an important woman in his life - Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. The book opens with Fanny traveling to Belgium with her three children and their nanny. She wants time and space away from her philandering husband. Believing it's a chance to start over, Fanny is devastated by a series of tragedies that happen while she's abroad. She decides to hide away in a quiet artists' colony, which is where she meets Robert Louis Stevenson. He's ten years her senior, and she's definitely not instantly smitten with him. It's an unlikely love story, but so begins one that will last the rest of their lives.

There are so many obstacles in their path. Stevenson is an invalid and struggling to be a published writer. Fanny is married and has young children during a time where divorce isn't the proper thing to do. And yet, they find that they must be together. Their story ultimately takes them all around the world in a search for somewhere that Stevenson will finally be well - where he can live and write in peace and good health.

I thoroughly enjoyed so many aspects of Under the Wide and Starry Sky. The complicated characters and their loving yet difficult relationship, the numerous places they visit, and the sacrifices they make for each other. The book covers a very long period of time, and I really enjoyed being able to see the ebb and flow of their love for one another over so many years. They faced many difficulties in their lives, and I liked seeing how that played out in their marriage. Their relationship seemed so realistic, and the main characters had so much depth. They weren't flat or boring, and I really enjoyed seeing them come to life.

The level of research that went into this book was also evident on every page. I love when I'm reading fiction but learning at the same time. Conversations and motivations were certainly fictionalized, but there was still so many I learned about Stevenson's life and travels that I never knew before.

I did feel, however, that the book had a few pacing issues. It would really grab my interest and then lose steam just a few chapters later. I found it particularly difficult to fall in love with the end of the book because it seemed like the heart of the story got lost in too many details. It's a long book, which isn't a bad thing. But I did feel like it lasted a long time when I was reading - and that's not how I typically feel when I'm totally engaged with the story (no matter the length of the book).

The writing itself and the characters were really interesting, but I wasn't completely invested in every aspect of this book. The few pacing issues and need to be more selective in what was covered in their story kept me from falling head over heels for Under a Wide and Starry Sky, but I would still absolutely recommend it to fans of historical fiction. It's a sad, slow book about a difficult yet beautiful love story. And I'm so glad I read it!

So Quotable
"When I suffer in mind, stories are my refuge; I take them like opium. Anyone who entertains me with a great story is a doctor of the spirit."

"In the end, what really matters? Only kindness. Only making somebody a little happier for your presence."
*I received a copy of this book from Ballantine in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

6 comments:

  1. YES! I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed this one! I have an e-ARC of it as well, though I haven't gotten around to it (yet). Fictionalized accounts of real people make my heart happy. I love reading a book and learning something new, whether it's something to be found in the pages or a mention of something/someone that I'll later go off and research on my own. B.A. Shapiro's The Art Forger was WONDERFUL for this - I couldn't tell you the first thing about art, but she wrote in a way that made this strange and beautiful world seem within reach. I certainly spent the better part of a weekend looking up artwork, painters, and the real life theft of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum after finishing that book!

    It's a shame the book lost you toward the end, but I'm now I'm definitely eager to start reading!

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  2. I'm actually reading this right now! I'm enjoying it so far, but haven't gotten too far into it yet. This sub-genre is new for me, so I'm looking forward to seeing how this one goes :)

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  3. I had no idea this was about Robert Louis Stevenson! I saw that cover as well and loved it. Will have to check this one out, fantastic review!

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  4. That cover is absolutely gorgeous! It would have caught my attention had I seen it as well. The story, too, sounds pretty fascinating, particularly since it's inspired by a real person. I think it would be interesting to see his story unfold before my very eyes.

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  5. This sounds amazing. I love this cover. I immediately put it in my library queue, both the ebook and the audiobook. Thank you! Can't wait for this one. YAY!!

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