Beginning in 1876, Horan’s weighty novel crosses continents from America to Europe and onto the South Sea Islands, tracing the life of Fanny Osborne and her tumultuous marriage to famous author Robert Louis Stevenson. Leaving her husband, Sam (for reasons she knows to be vague), to study art in Antwerp and then in Paris, Fanny is propelled to take risks. Her escape from Sam is fuelled by the fact that he is supporting “yet another whore” in his apartment in San Francisco.
Filled with details of late-Victorian life during a period of great artistic revolution, the imaginative stories of Louis and the lucrative titles that will soon come to characterize much of his fame, author Horan characterizes a difficult existence as well as a good deal of love and tragedy along the way. Thus begins Fanny’s sojourn into the anonymity of Paris, where she finds a home amid the city’s artistic denizens, the writers and painters who possess a knack “for making something out of nothing.“ Neither Fanny nor her children—daughter Belle and young sons Sammy and Hervey—can fully imagine this bohemian lifestyle. Fanny is determined, however, that her boys become “educated gentlemen.” Far from the humiliating role of betrayed wife, she endeavors to map out a more creative life for Belle and herself.
Disaster strikes when Hervey falls ill, the tearful circumstances leading Fanny into the kindly bosom of her best friend, Margaret Wright, and to the most “bohemian of bohemian gatherings.” At a cottage on the edge of Fontainebleau Forest, she meets Bob Stevenson—a Scot from Edinburgh and first of a regular summer crowd—and later, Bob’s cousin, handsome Louis. For frail Louis, everything about this American woman is exotic: from her lively gold-ringed features to her dark eyes and the fact that she rolls her own tobacco. For her part, Fanny is attracted to Louis’s notion that each of them, in his or her own way, is an exile from bourgeois values: from family crests, unhappy love affairs, and a society that continually judges them. Social outcasts of sorts, they harbor respective passions for painting and for writing, passions that have shaped them into outsiders and have provided the glue that will eventually bind them as one.
This eventual marriage of artist and writer gives Horan’s tale its romantic flavor. Fanny and Louis travel to Davos, to the bucolic Napa Valley, to cold, sullen Bournemouth, and later to the exotic South Sea Islands where they can do little to counteract the growing realities of Louis’s failing health. For Louis, every chance encounter and every change of landscape offers itself up to his pen as he embarks upon a mission to pour all that he has witnessed through his soul onto paper. Throughout a childhood in bed with “a hacking cough,” only stories saved him from the worst of loneliness. In spite of his wealthy father’s plans for him, from an early age Louis knew that he wanted to make a living doing what he loves.
While Horan’s portrayal of Fanny is one of courage against adversity, Louis’s is rendered as a man hungry for living life yet oblivious to caution. Never does he let his illness cripple his spirit, even as a chemical mix of rage and freedom seems to grow in his chest, cutting him off from society and shaping his moral appetite. Does Fanny notice this “galloping desire” that seems to make an idiot of him? Louis wants to be worthy of her love, and he wants Fanny to embrace his world—and she wants to be embraced. Fanny’s dilemma is that she often feels out of place among her husband’s strange, intellectually-minded, overly mannered “and even a little frightening” friends.
As Fanny and Louis reveal their intimate thoughts and secret dreams, they cling desperately for an ounce of good news regarding Louis’s health. Amid pirate stories, a dead man’s chest, and sea shanties in Davos (where no better climate exists for tuberculosis), Horan unfolds chapters that link us to the human heart and its grand measures of nobility and baseness. Louis’s illness certainly brings out the best and the worst, especially in Fanny—her nurturing, wry self one day, and the next “a screeching hellcat.” Louis’s cruel sickness constantly whips around their lives, lying with them like “an uninvited guest,” pushing them into places they don’t want to go then pulling them out of places they love, from Silverado to Davos to Hyeres.
Horan showcases her hero as an eccentric genius ill-fitted for mainstream existence, his stories an extension of the wonder of his literary expression and the realities of his failing health. The author also revels in how perfectly named is Louis’s Hyde, with his dark and possibly sexual longings, and how Doctor Jekyll’s compulsions are quickly labeled by the wider society as “whoremongering.”
While Horan got me from the first chapter, my one complaint is the book‘s length. A good editor could have excised a third of the book and not in anyway altered the core story of Louis and Fanny‘s love affair and their journey towards literary fame. Horan is a good storyteller and she certainly delivers her flesh-and-blood portraits of Louis and Fanny, some judicious editing would not have affected the novel’s overall impact.