Book Reviews, Literary News, and Thoughts on Life
The Stats: “The year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon — when she walks through the standing stone in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach — an “outlander” — in a Scotland torn by war and raiding Highland clans in the year of Our Lord . . . 1743.
Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into intrigues and dangers that may threaten her life . . . and shatter her heart. For here she meets James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, and becomes a woman torn between fidelity and the desire of her heart . . . and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives,” (Back cover of Outlander, b/c I am too lazy to write my own summary).
Ok, the back cover schpiel makes these books sound a bit too much like the plot line of one of those cheap, tawdry romance novels you find offered at the drug store, but I promise you that this is not the case. I loathe those books with a passion for their ridiculousness, so I assure you that I would not be promoting these books were that the case.
Though the series centers around the relationship between Jamie and Claire and how it evolves through their experiences in war, separation and the like, I would be more likely to classify these books as historical fiction with a touch of fantasy, than bodice rippers (er, romance novels).
What sets these books apart: The characters are the biggest draw to this series. It’s rare that I adore both the male and female leads, but Gabaldon has managed to make this happen. Claire, at 27, is older than most romance heroines, for one. She’s intelligent, self-less, brave, and is not afraid to speak her mind when roused (though she doesn’t come off as a bitter harpy when doing so). She uses her talents as a nurse to make herself useful from the get-go and isn’t the type to sit in the corner wringing her hands while her man fights to protect her. Above all, she is kind and compassionate, with a fierce protective streak when it comes to those she loves.
And how can I do the description of Jamie justice? Well, for one, he has managed to usurp the title of my favorite male book character from Eugenides of The Queen’s Thief series fame(and that takes a pretty special person, because Gen is amazing). I admire Jamie’s complete confidence in who he is: he is able to seamlessly combine his role of a warrior and protector with that of a tender and affectionate lover. He’s witty and clever, fearless, and loyal to a fault.
The best part about Jamie and Claire is when they butt heads over a clash between their two distinctly different cultures. Both of them are quite stubborn and are not afraid to speak honestly when the other does something that upsets them, which results in some very entertaining knock-down, drag-out type fights in the earlier books. They aren’t perfect, though, not by a long shot. Jamie and Claire both make mistakes, really big ones that result in chaos and catastrophe, but I appreciate that Gabaldon has created multifaceted characters, full of both faults and admirable qualities. I also like that she has taken the time to develop the relationship between Jamie and Claire over the course of several decades, not just demonstrate the courtship of their youth. Maybe it might squick younger readers out to imagine forty and fifty year olds going at it, but with the divorce rate being what it is, I like the thoughts of there being couples out there (real or imaginary) who still love and cherish one another after many years and are doing all they can to make their relationship stand the test of time.
I also like how Gabaldon strives for realism in how she presents the time period and the Highland and various British dialects. She doesn’t romanticize or sugarcoat how people lived in the 18th century like many movies and books , but shows how most individuals lacked proper hygiene (and teeth, as a result of poor nutrition) and weren’t always attending parties and balls in pretty gowns. Though it may be gross to think about how smelly that era would have been, I do like how vivid a picture is painted with these details.
On the flip side: As a history person, I appreciate that Gabaldon’s attention to detail and understanding of the importance of research. These are great, big books that take even a fast reader like myself days to finish. There are some books in the series, particularly towards the middle, where the plot is bogged down with too many details. Unless it is essential to the plot at some pont in the novel, I don’t need to read about every single medical procedure Claire performed during a Clan Gathering, like I did during the first 150 pages of The Fiery Cross. It’s not a good thing when I start flipping ahead a book out of boredom instead of excitement over discovering what happens next. I will say that this was only a problem for me during the fourth and fifth books in the series. Things definitely improved for the better in the sixth book, A Breath of Snow and Ashes.
Some might also take issue with several improbable occurances littered throughout the series, such as the high amount of characters who have been raped and/or abducted in just one family. I would say to these dissenters that these are fictional novels, so there must be some suspension of belief, and there is also quite a bit of difference in culture between the 20th and 18th centuries, one of the things Gabaldon has emphasized throughout the series. One has to keep in mind that the 1700s were a violent time period and that women were not treated with the same amount of respect that they are today (they were more or less property owned first by their father’s and then by their husbands). Jamie and several of the other male characters in the book are honorable men and treat their wives and female relations with love and respect, but that isn’t always evident in other characters presented in the series and in this time period in general.
For all its faults, I wouldn’t have gone on for over 1000 words on a series if I didn’t like it quite a bit. I do think there is something for everyone in these books, whether you’re drawn to fantasy, historical fiction, action and adventure, or simply enjoy quality storytelling and wonderful characters. Do give the Outlander series a try — I’m quite sure you won’t be disappointed.
Shameless plug: Here is the link for a wiki I did for one of my library science classes on Outlander for a mock book club that explores the link between the book and cooking. Check it out if you want some more information on the book, culture of the Highlands, and some great Scottish recipes.