Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jekylls and Hydes in the Stevenson Family

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

Fanny Osbourne is running away from America with her three children. She's had enough of her husband's cheating ways; surely Antwerp is far enough away. But when her youngest son falls ill and then dies, she's encouraged to recuperate in provincial France. There she meets Robert Louis Stevenson, who immediately falls in love with her. As he's several years her junior, she doesn't initially return his affections. But soon she's under his spell, and thus begins the whirlwind lifetime of land and sea, from frozen mountains to tropical rainforests, in sickness and health, for richer and poorer and until death did them part. This is Nancy Horan's "Under the Wide and Starry Sky."

The sweeping proportions of this story are almost incredible. We see these two through their travels across England, America, Europe and even the South Seas, where they eventually wind up on the island of Samoa. The amazing amount of miles they covered - together and separately, both on land and on sea - are even more astonishing when you consider that most of their lives the two of them were desperately poor. All of this, together with the startling number of bouts of illness that Louis suffered through as well as Fanny's emotional breakdowns seems like something that could only happen in an epic novel.

This is probably the reason why Horan chose this subject. The scope here is so enormous that there is plenty of drama. With so much of the facts available, clues to what might have been were probably bursting at the seams. It is no wonder that Horan's imagination could easily fill in the gaps and turn an ordinary biography into a piece of historical fiction. It is also not surprising that it took almost a full 500 pages to properly tell this tale.

Of course, this does beg the question if Horan didn't bite off a touch more than she could chew, by not limiting herself to only a certain period or few periods in their lives. The problem with that, of course, is trying to decide which periods to keep and which to be left out. While I initially balked at the length of this book, I personally couldn't find more than a few paragraphs here and there that could possibly have been superfluous. Taking those out would maybe (and I repeat, only MAYBE) have reduced this by only 50 pages at the very most. Not a huge difference, so I'm guessing Horan decided it wasn't worth further editing. However, I'm positive there are many things that didn't make the final cut.

In Horan's previous novel "Loving Frank," about architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his relationship with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Horan focused more on Mamah than she did on Wright. Here, however, she carefully Horan divides her focus between Fanny and Stevenson, using both their voices rather than using just one or the other. This could be the reason for this book's length, and is the only thing that I would criticize about this work. My feeling is that had she concentrated on only Fanny's story, this book might have been just a bit more powerful. This isn't to say that the final product is weak, but that its strength seems slightly diluted than it could have been.

What keeps this lengthy story from becoming a tiring tome is Horan's writing. The fluidity of her prose has been carefully matched to the era of the story, making it feel as if Fanny and Stevenson are writing it themselves. Of course, that's the whole point. If you can't make a fictional account of real writers sound like they do in their own works, you've taken on the wrong subjects. So in this Horan succeeds in spades, which does a great deal to keep the story moving ahead, despite all the details that needed to be included. We are enchanted by the poetic feel of these two people and are carried away to their harsh and exotic worlds. Horan's prose is simply gripping, as if we're reading one of Stevenson's adventure stories, and we become that anxious to find out what comes next (despite knowing the outcome from the start).

All told, Horan has given us an ambitious work that brings a beloved writer and the love of his life out of the dusty pages of literary history and into the bright light of day. We become familiar with the man behind the words and the woman who kept him alive long enough to make them available to the public. For this, we are thankful that Fanny was there with all her Indiana stubbornness to keep him going. What's more, she allows us to discover not only the parts of these two people that endear them to us, but also their darker sides with all their demons. For all of this, I have to give "Under the Wide and Starry Sky" four stars out of five and sincerely recommend it. 

"Under the Wide and Starry Sky" by Nancy Horan released on January 21, 2014 by Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book via NetGalley. This review appears on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady) and also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Draws and Drawbacks of Historical Fiction

Albert Camus once said “fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” If you ask me, historical fiction is the truth through which we tell lies. 

The Draws

There are lots of reasons to read historical fiction. Either you have an interest in a certain era or perhaps you hold a fascination about a personality that we either admired or despised. Usually, choosing to read about either of these via fiction is a way to investigate the subjects, without being subjected to tomes of facts that are often tediously detailed. This isn't to say that non-fiction can't be fascinating. However, for those of us who need a bit of fantasy mixed into our reality; historical fiction is the way to go.

Over the years, I've read a good deal of historical fiction. The history I've read about goes back to the beginning of man itself. Yes, I was one of those who, back in the 80s, got hooked on Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear and then waited with bated breath for every new installment. It was no surprise that when Colleen McCullough came out with her "Masters of Rome" series in the 90s, I was devouring each and every one of them, as soon as they came off the (paperback) presses.

This past year alone, I read two historical fiction books about France. The first was The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood, which takes place before the Revolution. The other was Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb, about Napoleon Bonaparte's wife. After enjoying these two books, if I come across another novel about this era, I'm sure I'll be easily tempted.

And I never know what will tickle my fancy. For instance, while horror has never been my genre, I did enjoy The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova which investigates what might have happened if Bram Stoker's imaginary Dracula was real and still recruiting. But being from Chicago my interest to the novel Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, was obvious. Who from that city wouldn't want to read about Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the woman who became the lover of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright? 

The Drawbacks

I don't read just any historical fiction books, and I often avoid the most popular ones. That's why I've never read any Philippa Gregory, for instance, despite my fascination surrounding England's Tudor period. Admittedly, I do own one of her books, but I've yet to read it. The reason for this is because I fear her books may focus too much on the romance for my taste. This, of course, is the first drawback of historical fiction - taking a perfectly good time in history and turning either real or fictional characters into sentimental lovesick calves or worse, sex maniacs.

Another drawback of historical fiction is when the author forgets that they're writing fiction and not a biography. This only happens with stories based on the lives of real people. Seriously, if you're fictionalizing someone's life, we don't really need to know every last detail of every week of their lives. Yes, I know it is hard to resist, especially if that person lived during an era that's chock-full of amazing things going on. Believe me when I tell you that we will totally forgive you for taking literary license to condense events as well as cut out things. We realize it is fiction, so go ahead and chop away.

Another drawback of historical fiction comes from bad research. Fudging things a bit to keep the story going is one thing. But getting things obviously wrong is something that's a major bugbear of mine. There have been times I fervently wished I could have gotten the gig checking Jewish and Israeli references in stories I've read. Of course, few people would accept my authority on the subject, but I do know my stuff in these areas - or at least more than some of the consultants these writers have used. I've had times when I've actually screamed at the texts, because they were so terribly incorrect.

The greatest drawback and my #1 no-no of historical fiction is, if you're writing in present tense, DO NOT tell me something that will happen in the character's future. If that event or piece of information is important to the story, it should come up chronologically in the book. If not, it doesn't belong there at all! This becomes worse if it involves an event we know is going to happen. For example, if the story is written about someone living in New York in August 2001, we know what's going to happen only one month later. Please don't tell us during the August part of the story, what the character is going to experience on or after September 11! Mind you, if the story is being told in retrospect, this can be excused, to a certain extent. One writer who uses this type of foreshadowing often, and sometimes to extreme (usually taking the story off into a long, rambling tangent), is John Irving. However, because his stories are written in past tense, this isn't as much of a problem.

When a historical fiction novel can avoid these pitfalls, it can be a wonder to behold. I've been lucky, since most of the historical fiction I've read has been generally successful, and their draws have outweighed or avoided most of these drawbacks. That's why I think, if I'm going to read about truths, I'll continue to read about them through the lies of this fascinating genre.

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