Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.
Usually I prefer biography to the fictionalization of an historical person’s life. Even--actually especially--in the cases where little is known about a person I prefer a nonfiction portrait using what information there is enriched with details about the daily lives, culture, religious beliefs, and living conditions of the time and place where he or she lived rather than novelized speculations about a real person’s deepest thoughts, emotions and yearnings. I was therefore initially hesitant to try this book.
In the case of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny potential novelists or biographers have lots of information about their inner and outer lives, much of which the two of them wrote themselves in journals, letters, and stories. So why read this novel when there are several biographies that made use of the same background materials? Because author Nancy Horan used those sources to breath life into layered characterizations of Fanny, Robert, and their friends and families, creating the kind of deeply moving story that is good fiction’s unique strength. When nonfiction manages to be this compelling it’s often described as being as gripping or emotionally rich as fiction.
Bohemian vagabonds, Fanny and Robert had a passionate relationship and were devoted to each other, but they were not without problems. Like her husband, Fanny had the soul of an artist. She painted and wrote, and she lived her life in large and creative ways, but she often felt marginalized by her husband’s friends and fans, and sometimes felt devalued even by Robert himself. Several times when tragedies struck Fanny struggled through bouts of madness. Robert spent much of his life as an invalid, but an invalid who embraced the giddy joys of living all the more for his times of illness. He teetered on the brink of death many times, but Fanny’s determined care pulled him through again and again. Robert’s damaged lungs kept them on the move as they searched for a climate that would improve his health until they finally discovered the benefits of the South Pacific and settled in Samoa with their extended family--her two children, a grandchild, and his mother.
Because of the letters and journals Horan is able to give a full-bodied picture of their emotional lives as well as their comings and goings and the circumstances of the age they lived in. One of the fascinations of this book for me was reading about the medical treatments of the day. Fanny and Robert lived in the late Victorian era that I can’t seem to get enough of and were friends with Henry James among other notables of the time, but theirs was more a world of art and adventure than one of heiresses and aristocrats. This is a long book, 466 pages of story, but it made me feel such empathy with and interest in Fanny and Robert that I enjoyed it from start to finish and felt sad when it was over.