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Monday, September 26, 2011

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I had heard about Gabaldon's books a number of years ago -- a hybrid of romance, historical fiction, and science fiction -- but hadn't gotten around to picking up the first one yet. Then a friend of mine from the Dear Jane quilt class attended the romance genre convention here in New York, and came back with a free copy of Outlander; she already owned it, so she passed it to me (thanks, Lucy!)

I can see why the books are so popular, and for the most part I enjoyed it. Gabaldon writes that the book contains "history, warfare, medicine, sex, violence, spirituality, honor, betrayal, vengeance, hope and despair, relationships, the building and destruction of families and societies, time travel, moral ambiguity, swords, herbs, horses, gambling (with cards, dice, and lives), voyages of daring, [and] journeys of both body and soul," and she wasn't kidding. The premise is that Claire, an Englishwoman in 1946, accidentally travels back in time to 18th century Scotland and struggles to get back home, or at least survive. There is a lot of interesting stuff going on in the book, and the characters (with the exception of the main antagonist) are complex. Gabaldon has also clearly done a tremendous amount of research, and as a result the world of her novel feels dense and real.

Nonetheless, I have some reservations. For one, the book is very long, and by page 500 of 850 I was ready to move on. For another, there is an awful lot of violence: fighting, rapes, attempted rapes, and all kinds of beatings, which were sometimes disturbing, and eventually exhausting. One incident in particular bugged me -- the hero of the book, Jamie, feels the need to "punish" disobedient Claire (by now his wife) by spanking her. Gabaldon did a credible job of putting this in context, both of the society they are in and the particulars of these characters, but it was nonetheless awful to read. In my previous career as a lawyer (and lawyer-in-training) I spent some time working with domestic violence victims, so I really can't admire a man who hits his wife, no matter the cultural context. Not surprisingly, among the small but vocal minority who do not like the Outlander series, this incident gets mentioned a lot.

I also had trouble understanding why Gabaldon gave Claire a husband in 1946. Various characters discuss that she is a kind of widow as a result of the time travel, or that her marriage to Jamie takes place first temporally and so is the valid one, but I could not shake the feeling that Claire was an adulterer. It seemed icky, especially since Frank was portrayed as a good man whom she truly loved. So what was his point, if Jamie is her "true" love? Frank certainly gave Claire motivation in the first half of the book to try and return home, but it really wasn't necessary; handsome highlanders aside, most women would desperately try to get back to a world where there was indoor plumbing and antibiotics, not to mention a society where one does not have to fend off rapists every other day. Frank was also the source of crucial historical information Claire needed, but again, that could have been done through a friend or relative, or even a Frank who died in World War II. Whatever I felt about Claire and Jamie, "Poor Frank" kept running through my mind.

But this relates to what I ended up finding most interesting about the series, namely the narrative decisions Gabaldon made. Take Claire for example: she is from 1946, making her modern but not too modern to adapt to life in the 18th century. She is a nurse with extensive battlefield training, which gives her a valuable skill at a time when women were generally either wives or whores (and sets the stage for the obligatory "She's a witch! Burn her!" chapter). She was raised by an archeologist uncle who traveled the world, she endured WWII, and she was part of post-war England, all of which allows her to cope with rough living and the absence of 20th century conveniences. I enjoyed peering through the story, so to speak, to see how it was put together.

Outlander is just the first volume of the series, with book eight coming out later this year. Which presents a dilemma -- I really want to find out what happens to some of the characters (especially the hinted-at other time travelers), and what the explanations of the supernatural events are. But each book is so long, and I have so many other books to read. Perhaps I should check out the Outlandish Companion.

1 comment:

  1. This is no ordinary romance...Outlander goes above and beyond romance. Gabaldon's characters reach out and grab a person, you will either like them or hate them, but each character will leave his and her impression on you. James Fraser is the Hero in the book, and not your average "romantic" male. Diana Gabaldon portrayed him in a realistic way, from bodily functions to the typical male Jamie is a man to fall in love with. I have to be honest and say that I did not like Claire, BUT it is a sign of Diana's flair for writing, she brings life into the characters. I highly recommend this book if you like time travel, romance, humor, and Scotland.