I absolutely loved Nancy Horan's previos novel, Loving Frank, a book I randomly stumbled upon in the book store (browsing for books used to be a bit different because it seems like now when I go to a book store I have at least heard of most novels I look at due to CBR and various book blogs and if not, I can look them up on Goodreads). I actually remember that trip to the bookstore, because I was visiting a friend, and we had once been to see a Frank Lloyd Wright designed house in Springfield, IL, so it just seemed fitting that I would buy this novel while at the bookstore with her (that Springfield trip is actually the topic of my very first post on this blog). Naturally, when I discovered she had a new novel coming out I was very excited, even if the initial reviews were not exactly enthusiastic. Having completed the novel, I have to generally agree. It's a good piece of historical fiction but it didn't make nearly the impression that Loving Frank did.
Having read both novels, there are certainly seem to be themes that the stories share, and I'm guessing these similarities are the things that draws Horan to her topics. Both novels deal with women who already have children, and are somewhat disillusioned with their partners who discover second chances at love and have to find a balance between what is right for them and for their children. In both cases, their new paramours happen to end up very famous and successful though they have financial struggles throughout the relationship.
Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne has packed up her children and moved from San Francisco to Europe to get away from her philandering husband. While she is in France, she meets and eventually develops a relationship with Robert Louis Stevenson, a man ten years her junior, who will become famous as the author of pieces such Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (unfortunately, that's the only thing of his I've read). Their life and their relationship ends up being very determined by his poor health as they spend much of their time traveling in search of the proper climate for him.
I thought their relationship was rather interesting, but I didn't always take to Fanny because some of her decisions seemed a bit impulsive, and her personality could be a bit harsh and caustic at times, even though the novel describes her as charming. While she got along very well with Stevenson's family, her relationship with his friends was more complicated, and I thought the parts that went further into Stevenson's relationships with different people and their reactions to him were illuminating, and a bit sad at points.
Honestly, I found the novel very informative and Horan did a great job of chronicling the couple's life and journey but I also feel like this is where she misstepped. It just got a bit long and too detailed at various times. One instance that stands out most in my memory is when she discusses them moving to a town in France only to move again because of illness; even while I was reading I thought we could have just skipped ahead to where they ended up actually living to begin with. Horan had already demonstrated the difficulties the couple faced due to Stevenson's health, so this didn't seem necessary. However, a while back I read The Paris Wife and a biography of Hemingway's first wife and realized that sometimes just because someone's a good author doesn't actually mean his life (or his wife's) is that interesting or that he is a good subject of a book (since these books in particular were from Hemingway's first wife's perspective, they don't actually focus on many of his journeys given the time frame, or they occasionally mention that Hemingway went somewhere while focusing on Hadley's time alone). In comparison, I found the life Stevenson and Fanny lead much more interesting, and this was a much better book than The Paris Wife, but certainly some of the novel could have been streamlined and made for an even more engaging read. After all, it's historical fiction not biography, so I don't expect all the gritty details, and understand if timelines are compressed for the sake of entertainment.