Nancy Horan is making a name for herself as the writer of star-crossed love stories. Her first novel was "Loving Frank," a best-selling interpretation of the ill-fated love affair between architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Chicago matron Mamah Borthwick Cheney.
For her second book, the Whidbey Island novelist considers another real-life romance that blossomed beyond the tidy bounds of conventional 19th century society - the relationship between American Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne and author Robert Louis Stevenson.
Horan begins "Under the Wide and Starry Sky" with Fanny, who has resolved to escape the shame of a philandering husband by taking her children to Europe. Shortly after their arrival overseas, however, Fanny's loosely conceived plan to study art is waylaid by catastrophe. To recover, the family retreats to an inn in the French countryside.
That is where Fanny meets an optimistic young Scotsman and his band of friends. The men are creative, fun, and kind to both the children and her. Robert Louis Stevenson - Louis - is drawn to her immediately, despite the ten-year difference in their ages.
Initially, Fanny appreciates Louis, but resists him because he is callow and she is a married (albeit unhappily) woman. But Louis persists in his adoration, and Fanny's opinion begins to alter.
When she returns to America, Louis dives into writing projects to fill the void. Eventually he can bear it no longer and journeys to San Francisco, where Fanny is contemplating divorce - her husband has been reliable only in his repeated infidelities.
Louis's health has always been fragile, and the long trip has exhausted him. Thus begins their life together - Fanny nursing him back from a deathly illness, marriage, the search for a more salutary climate for Louis's lungs, the devotion and the quarrels, the constant quest for self-actualization.
Horan traces the lives of these two - apart and together - as they travel from California to Scotland, Switzerland, and the South Seas.
Louis, who in his early years had been unable to make a living at his writing and relied on his father's support, finally finds success across several genres -- writing "Treasure Island," "A Child's Garden of Verses," and "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
Fanny serves as lover, nurse, farmer, note-taker and "critic on the hearth." But as the wife of an increasingly prominent writer, her own attempts at artistic expression are belittled, discouraged or ignored - most egregiously by their circle of "friends," and occasionally by her distracted husband. It pains her soul to the point of breaking - and then it is Louis's turn to provide care.
Horan invests each page of this book with exquisite, sensual detail - fragrances, sounds, textures, tastes - that bring the Stevensons' exotic forays to life.
But it is the human heart that commands center stage. As Louis ponders, "In the end, what really matters? Only kindness. Only making somebody a little happier for your presence."
It's a lovely sentiment, but as "Under the Wide and Starry Sky" demonstrates, one that seems to demand complication.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.