Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Books

Review: Nancy Horan again focuses on a famous man and his mate

Wives are enjoying a star turn in popular culture — from the surgically altered Real Housewives of New Jersey and Beverly Hills to the wives and not-quite wives of famous men whose scintillating stories are fueling a historical fiction genre all their own.

Loving Frank, Nancy Horan's popular 2007 novel about Frank Lloyd Wright's tempestuous love affair with Mamah Cheney, jump-started the genre. Other authors, recognizing a good thing, have served up novels about Anne Morrow Lindbergh (The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin), Hadley Richardson Hemingway (The Paris Wife by Paula McLain) and Ruth Mallory (Above All Things by Tanis Rideout).

Now, Horan's second novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, carries on this burgeoning genre with the story of 19th century Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. The latest pick for the Today show's book club, it's operatic, global in its settings and dead-on in its portrayal of prefeminism-era women and their limited opportunities.

Stevenson, best known for Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, spent much of his life as an invalid before he died at 44. "Under the wide and starry sky" is the opening line of an epitaph he wrote after becoming gravely ill on a trip to California in 1879.

A woman's profile graces the novel's cover, but Stevenson, not Fanny, is the North Star of this story, and his struggles, more than Fanny's, will win readers' hearts. Stevenson, called Louis by family and friends, was 26 when he met 36-year-old Fanny in France in 1876. She had moved to Europe to escape her philandering husband. Like Wright's Mamah, she longed for la vie boheme, a life filled with artistic and intellectual pursuits. In the end, she mostly just gets credit for keeping her husband alive until he died in the South Seas from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1894.

Still, Horan infuses both these portraits with color, passion and intellectual spark. Stevenson was tall, had a boyish air and looked like a walking bag of sticks, even during periods of relatively good health. Short, stout and stern, Fanny clearly looked older. It's hard to imagine what they saw in each other, yet Horan writes she was "the most magnificent woman" he'd ever met. And though Stevenson describes himself as a "mere complication of cough and bones," Fanny thinks that "he was the most alive person she'd ever met."

The book centers on their marriage, his poor health and his struggles to achieve literary success. While Fanny also wants artistic recognition, she spends much of their time together wiping his feverish brow, disposing of the blood he spits up by the pint and meddling with his creative process. At one point, annoyed by her criticism of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he throws the manuscript into the fireplace.

Horan pitches readers into the mind of a thriller-writing genius who wanted his stories to be a refuge from everyday concerns. When he was well enough, Stevenson aspired to an adventurous life "bigger than anything I dreamed of" as a bedridden child. He and Fanny moved frequently, setting up house in France, Switzerland, America, Scotland, England and his final resting place, Samoa.

Exoticism permeates this novel, especially during the years that the Stevensons went native in the South Seas. It's a time in their lives that's deliciously reminiscent of the adventure novels Stevenson wrote, and Horan's delightful reimagining is just as entertaining. She has created a worthy tribute to Stevenson and the woman who stood by him.

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Events: Tarbell.org founder Wendell Potter to discuss, sign book

Book TalkTarbell.org founder Wendell Potter (Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It) will discuss and sign his book at 4 p.m. May 23 at the St. Petersburg Main Library, 3745 Ninth Ave. N.Applications are ...
Published: 05/21/18
The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

om Wolfe’s best writing lifted real people into legend: car designers and astronauts and disciples of LSD. With that writing, Wolfe lifted himself into legend as well.The author of 16 books, including such bestsellers as The Right Stuff and The Bonfi...
Published: 05/18/18
Review: In Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider,’ evil can’t be true but must be true

Review: In Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider,’ evil can’t be true but must be true

On a July day, Terry Maitland, one of the most popular men in Flint City, Okla. — high school English teacher, Little League coach, husband and father, recently named the town’s man of the year — attends a teachers convention in a city over an hour’s...
Published: 05/17/18

Events: Gilbert King to discuss ‘Beneath a Ruthless Sun’ at Inkwood in Tampa

Book TalkCutter Wood (Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime) will discuss and sign his nonfiction book about a murder on Anna Maria Island at 6 p.m. May 14 at Bookstore1, 12 S Palm Ave., Sarasota.The Gulfport Historical Society p...
Published: 05/11/18
Notable: As Mother’s Day nears, these new books are timely

Notable: As Mother’s Day nears, these new books are timely

NotableMore about mothersFor Mother’s Day, three new books offer a range of takes on motherhood.Beauty in the Broken Places: A Memoir of Love, Faith, and Resilience (Random House) by Allison Pataki is a memoir by a novelist whose 30-year-old husband ...
Published: 05/11/18
Review: A criminal’s confession is just the beginning in Michael Koryta’s compelling ‘How It Happened’

Review: A criminal’s confession is just the beginning in Michael Koryta’s compelling ‘How It Happened’

It’s what every investigator hopes for: a tough case finally solved when one of the criminals confesses, providing solid details and even describing where the bodies are buried.Or, in Michael Koryta’s compelling new psychological thriller How It Happ...
Published: 05/10/18
Anthony Award nominees include Tampa’s Michael Connelly, Down & Out Books

Anthony Award nominees include Tampa’s Michael Connelly, Down & Out Books

When the World Mystery Convention, a.k.a. Bouchercon, takes place in St. Petersburg in September and hands out its coveted Anthony Awards, the Tampa Bay Area will be well represented among the nominees.The award nominees, announced May 9, include Tam...
Published: 05/09/18
Updated: 05/10/18
Review: In Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon,’ the voice of slavery’s history speaks

Review: In Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon,’ the voice of slavery’s history speaks

It has taken Zora Neale Hurston’s book Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" 87 years to see print. But maybe it happened at just the right time.Just a week before the book’s May 8 publication date, rapper Kanye West opined in a TMZ intervie...
Published: 05/09/18
Review: Rick Bragg’s ‘The Best Cook in the World’ a loving food memoir about his mother

Review: Rick Bragg’s ‘The Best Cook in the World’ a loving food memoir about his mother

When Rick Bragg told his mother that his new book about her would be titled The Best Cook in the World, Margaret Bragg protested: "I wasn’t even the best cook that lived on our road." Bragg writes, "I told her we couldn’t call it The Thi...
Published: 05/09/18
Review: Ace Atkins takes an artful turn with Spenser in ‘Old Black Magic’

Review: Ace Atkins takes an artful turn with Spenser in ‘Old Black Magic’

Art can bring us joy, enlarge our perspective, even enlighten us. Sometimes, though, it can make us behave badly.In Ace Atkins’ new novel, Old Black Magic, art makes people behave very badly indeed.Three works of art, to be specific. A Picasso sketch...
Updated one month ago