UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY, by Nancy Horan. Ballantine Books, 474 pp. $26.
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 2007 novel about Frank Lloyd Wright's affair with Mamah Cheney, jump-started the genre. Other authors have served up novels about Anne Morrow Lindbergh ("The Aviator's Wife"), Hadley Richardson Hemingway ("The Paris Wife") and Ruth Mallory ("Above All Things").
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 is operatic, global in its settings and dead-on in its portrayal of pre-feminism-era women.
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 of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1894, at age 44. "Under the wide and starry sky" is the opening line of an epitaph he wrote after becoming ill in 1879.
A woman's profile graces the novel's cover, but Stevenson, not Fanny, is the North Star of this story. Called Louis by family and friends, he was 26 when he met 36-year-old Fanny in France in 1876. 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 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.
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 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.