|Under the Wide and Starry Sky
by Nancy Horan
|Ballantine Books, 2013
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
In the trend of novels about famous authors’ wives, Nancy Horan transitions from Frank Lloyd Wright and his three wives in Loving Frank to Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne in Under the Wide and Starry Sky. The story follows both Louis and his wife Fanny during their spotty affair, eventual marriage, and tense life together. Hers is a story about fitting in, whereas his is about finding a place in her life and achieving his literary dreams. Oddly, her inclusion in the literary wives club of history is so vague that people may not realize she also had several mental breakdowns—Zelda Fitzgerald outshines Fanny in that regard.
Key to the novel is Louis’s literary life. Writing about a writer always enables an author to comment about craft. Horan drops enough opinions that it’s hard to distinguish which belong to the characters and which are hers. She comments through Louis about the writing process by stating, “His work wasn’t as backbreaking as prying gargantuan rocks out of the earth, but in fairness to himself, he’d pushed his body hard, writing that heap of words.” Later, when Louis is tutoring a young neighbor girl in the craft of writing, he says:
But if you want to be a writer, you are going to have to put yourself in the shoes of people who are not so good. Everybody has faults. Some people have a lot of them. Yet no one sees himself as a monster. You need to try being him—or her—to know how she feels and thinks.
And again, after Louis meets Henry James, James “insisted a novel should convey a sense of reality so convincingly vivid that one couldn’t help by say, ‘Yes!’ when reading it.” Horan seems to take these statements to heart with her portrayal of Louis and Fanny, to the point that details and events become so intimate that they are almost uncomfortable to read. The most notable being Fanny’s madness—when one of her children dies and when she becomes violent later in life—and Louis’s various bouts of mortal illness—Fanny caring for his eyes, getting sick on a train to San Francisco, coughing blood when he suffers from upper respiratory infections—in addition to their overall lifestyle while they live on a Samoan island.
Readers first meet Fanny and learn of her situation: an estranged wife who takes her three children to Europe to pursue a painting education. While there, she meets Louis and all but scorns his youthful but sickly exuberance. As the novel progresses, perspectives shift between the two main characters—all to understand how unlikely their pairing is and the toils of a romance and career that takes them around the world. The merits of shifting perspective offer readers a window into both characters’ minds and emotions, which may be Horan’s attempts to show the entire situation and give antagonists full personalities with redeeming aspects.
However, such close awareness to both characters removes any mystery. Louis’s sections flow better and hold readers’ attentions more. If Horan maintained his view point throughout the novel, then the story would be more compelling. Mysteries would remain mysteries and unfold realistically instead of being explained beforehand—such as when Fanny returns to the United States without providing Louis with a proper reason. Removing these details would push readers to desire resolution. Instead, they already know everything, and the interim is a slow-paced wait until the situation is made “right” again. It is almost as if Fanny’s sections are just for readers’ benefits, but Louis’s portions are where the real story is.
But the story isn’t just about Fanny and Louis’s interactions. More often than not, readers will forget that Fanny is ten years Louis’s senior, until the characters insert reminders. It is always an issue when society becomes involved, but disappears when Fanny and Louis are alone. Fanny’s age, darker complexion, and American roots are stigmas, and she is ostracized from Louis’s group of friends because of them. Horan writes:
After Louis went upstairs, Fanny stood alone in the kitchen, anger rising inside her…. No one would admit it, but Fanny was outside the circle. What was she to them? A nurse. A housewife…. Maybe, in reality, that’s all she was. Some days it felt that way; there was so much hard labor in taking care of Louis and the household. She had been trying to write a story of her own for months, but every time she got a head of steam going, some duty waylayed her. She had gladly signed on to this life when she’d married him, but if Louis were well, she suspected there still would be little encouragement from him for her writing ambitions.
Fanny seems to be reminded of her strangeness only when someone else treats her differently. She is acutely aware of her situation and need for acceptance, but Horan presents age, ethnicity, and social stature as interesting taboos. It isn’t a problem unless someone else makes it one, which is true of most modern issues. This conflict resurfaces later in life when her madness all but consumes her. Louis, after reading her diary, even wonders: “He had learned late in the game that Fanny was the kind of woman who needed building up. But then everybody needed praise. The question was: Can a person go mad from want of it?” This query, due to other elements of Fanny and Louis’s lives, is never overtly answered by Horan; she leaves that judgment to her readers.
Under the Wide and Starry Sky is about the reality of relationships—the stuttering but brightly romantic beginnings that condense into a mellow familiarity and dependency. Illness and disillusionment shadow every major character throughout the novel, and readers only glimpse flashes of contentment and stability. If readers expect a novel filled with adventurous romance—the likes of which would come from Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—they will be disappointed. But those who are inclined to voyeurism will appreciate the nuances of love through the hardships of daily life.