Opening in 1875 before the married Fanny Osbourne met the younger, aspiring novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, the novel delves deeply into Fanny's life and her relationship with the man who would become her second husband. Fanny Osbourne fled California to escape the soul destroying cheating and philandering of her first husband, taking her three children to Antwerp so that she and her daughter, Belle, could study art and so that they could all start a new life. But the prejudices of the time thwarted her artistic dreams and then, more tragically, young Hervey Osbourne sickened with TB and died. It was when Fanny took her surviving children, Belle and Sammy, to the French countryside in an effort to recover from the grief and strain of Hervey's long death that she met a rowdy and engaging group of artists and writers, one of whom was the Scotsman, Robert Louis Stevenson.
Louis Stevenson fell for Fanny immediately but she was more reserved about this young man more than ten years her junior in age and even younger than that in experience. Eventually she fell for him as well though, first embarking on an affair with him, and then after a failed attempt at reconciliation with her husband, obtaining a divorce in order to marry Louis. Their marriage was a peripatetic one as they traveled around trying to find the perfect atmosphere for the sickly and often deathly ill Louis. Fanny, a vibrant, strong, and artistic woman herself, repressed many of her own wants and needs in caring for her fragile, talented husband. She repressed her own artistic ambitions to nursemaid Louis, often serving as his best, first reader and muse as well as ensuring his bodily health. They were not without conflict and stress in their relationship though. Louis's casual and cruel dismissal of Fanny's talent, her sometimes volatile conflicts with his friends, and their always looming financial difficulties caused discord and disharmony between them.
The story focuses mainly on Fanny; she is the character most alive on the page. Her famed husband is mostly seen through her eyes and oftentimes comes across as a particularly obstinate child. The story of their life and their travels is comprehensive but perhaps because there was so much time and ground to cover, the tale dragged in places and yet skimmed lightly through other times that seem like they should have carried more weight. Horan has captured the alternating tension and loving care between Fanny and Louis that was evident throughout the story and the ending is as heart breaking as Stevenson's epitaph has always made it seem. But I still missed the high emotion and gripping narration that I expected. And maybe that's unfair since this is a book about Fanny and Louis and not one of his riveting own tales. If it didn't quite satisfy completely, I did appreciate learning more about Stevenson's life and the woman who completed it.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.