At the age of thirty-five, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne has left her philandering husband in San Francisco to set sail for Belgium—with her three children and nanny in tow—to study art. It is a chance for this adventurous woman to start over, to make a better life for all of them, and to pursue her own desires. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her children repair to a quiet artists’ colony in France where she can recuperate. Emerging from a deep sorrow, she meets a lively Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who falls instantly in love with the earthy, independent, and opinionated “belle Americaine.”
Fanny does not immediately take to the slender young lawyer who longs to devote his life to writing—and who would eventually pen such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson’s charms, and the two begin a fierce love affair—marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness—that spans the decades and the globe. The shared life of these two strong-willed individuals unfolds into an adventure as impassioned and unpredictable as any of Stevenson’s own unforgettable tales.
I knew nothing about Robert Louis Stevenson before reading this book, and his life sounded like one grand adventure, so I couldn't wait to read about it, especially from the point of view of his stalwart wife. I fell for Fanny instantly. She's got that American gumption, that can-do attitude, that mentality that she is free and can do anything she sets her mind to. I'm going to forego a plot recap because life takes many twists and turns for the Stevensons, and I don't want to spoil anything, plus they just do so much stuff that I haven't the time to recap it all! The basic gist is that Fanny up and leaves her no-good husband and takes her children to Europe, where she sets up an artist's life and is eventually introduced to the young aspiring writer, Robert Louis Stevenson--known as Louis to his friends. For the next two decades their lives are inseparably entwined as they travel the world on many an adventure, riding the highs and lows of married life, the ebb and flow of fame and fortune, and the fickle whims of fate and failing health.
I just loved reading about this nineteenth century version of "jet-setting," where the jets are ships and trains, where artistic and literary types meet up in their favorite locales to inspire one another and travel halfway around the world to visit each other and fuel their creativity. I enjoyed sitting in as they discussed their craft, and I loved getting wrapped up in Louis's bursts of creative brilliance. And I really felt for Fanny as she put her own dreams on hold and fearlessly changed track each and every time it was required to save her husband's life. Though at times she mourned the loss of the life she had hoped to live, at times she harbored understandable feelings of resentment, she never lost her sense of self or her love for her husband, her children, and the determination to make the best of any situation.
I only have one real complaint, though it's a big one: the pacing is just so darned slow. After a wonderful beginning that swept me away with Fanny as she embarked on her new life, and then as she embarked on another adventure as the new Mrs. Stevenson, I was disappointed to find my interest waning. There were places where I really felt like I was slogging through an abundance of material that didn't necessarily need to be there, and I confess to skimming scenes that just didn't hold my interest. It didn't help that their married life sort of ran in repetitive cycles: Louis gets sick, they move, he gets better, repeat over and over until they settle in Samoa. Fortunately, things picked up again at that point, and watching Fanny and Louis form their own little eclectic community in Samoa was interesting and then exciting as they found themselves in the middle of a civil war. That combined with the emotional ending brought the book firmly back into four-star territory.
I mourned the loss of Louis right along with Fanny and the rest of the world. He was Scotland's hero, the weaver of stories that captured the imagination of his generation and those that followed. He was a bright star who determined to make the most out of life despite the betrayal of his frail body. He lived life to the fullest in a madcap, whimsical way that most of us would envy today, and the book is well worth the read just for that sense of joy and freedom alone. All in all, a good read for lovers of classic literature who enjoy getting a glimpse into the makers' minds and the bygone era in which it was inspired and created.
My Rating: 4 Stars out of 5
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