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Book: Outlander

August 9, 2008
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Well. I am of two minds about this book, written by Diana Gabaldon and apparently, as it says on the cover, enthralling millions.

First, The Good: OK, I liked it. I liked the setting (misty Scotland), I liked the history (1743, just before the Jacobite battle that wiped out much of the clan structure), and towards the end, I kind of liked the two main characters, Jamie and Claire. Also, it was long (850 page) and I always like that.

Claire, a nice, slightly feisty nurse in 1945, married to dull (I thought) historian Frank, is on her second honeymoon in Inverness, Scotland. One morning while exploring a circle of mysterious standing stones, she is somehow transported back in time to 1743. Captured by a Scots clan (the MacKenzies), she is taken to the castle while they try to figure out where she came from, and also put her to work as a physician as she has demonstrated her healing talents. Various adventures ensue, eventually landing her married to rugged clansman Jamie Fraser, whom she rather quickly falls in love with. She causes no end of troubles (by intention and by accident) and Jamie always (of course) rescues her. In the end, however, she rescues him from a particularly grim situation and then her healing powers are tested to the limit. We are rewarded with a happy ending.

Jamie Fraser, rugged (as we said), tall and handsome with a coppery head of red hair, is stubborn as a mule but seemingly invincible, as he endures every sort of torture, injury, and maim with dry Scots humor. He rather fancies this mysterious headstrong English lass (Claire) and when circumstances lead them to be married, he decides to take his opportunity and demands a proper marriage — one assumes, hoping for the best as they get to know one another. And of course, as he is sworn to protect her, protect her he does, and eventually the attraction between them turns to love and isn’t it handy that they’re already married? Not that she doesn’t test his patience at every turn. In the end, the tables are turned and she rescues him from certain death and nurses him back to health. Yay for the happy couple.

So, the romance was a little wooden for much of the book, and although I enjoyed it, the Scots brogue (Aye, yon clansmen speak in the olde ways; I dinna ken how accurate, however…) got a little old, especially towards the end when the romance finally felt a little more real and the language felt overly flowery and caused my eyes to inadvertently roll. However, like I said, the romance did eventually feel more solid to me and the characters finally felt a little more flesh-and-bone (perhaps owing to the near-mortal injuries of yon Jamie Fraser). By the end I allowed my apparently stony heart to be ever-so-slightly moved by their plight and was rooting for Jamie to pull through. I did enjoy the last chapter, as they were finally safe and sound and healing in the dark hot-springs cave at the French abbey, letting the water soothe them and their ravaged hearts and bodies.

However, my heart, as stated, apparently being made of stone, was not entirely won over. I really don’t know if I want to read the next book, although there were certain interesting time-travel questions that I’m curious about (since Clair killed the great-great-great-great-great (?) grandfather of her modern-day husband before he had a chance to get married and have a child, does her husband still exist in 1945?). However, that question aside, I don’t know that I really need to read five or six more books of this. Because..

The Bad: This writing really was nothing special and the romance trite and predictable for so much of the book. It’s a very interesting idea, and I did enjoy the setting, but there were so many times when I could just skim pages of rather pointless dialogue or storylines that went nowhere. I have this stubborn belief that everything in a novel should be there for a reason. I get that maybe some of these tangents were there to help fill out characters or backstory, but much of it felt very meandering and random and kind of irritated me. Some of the random snippets got tied up at the end and I grudgingly was glad for it, but even some of the more significant events were filled with needless detail and I have to admit that I skimmed.

The romance in particular irritated me for much of the book. The dialogue felt really forced and predictable, and I really did not feel any of the passion that the characters were supposed to be feeling. I don’t really mind bad writing so much if there is some genuine feeling behind the words (I felt that Twilight, while certainly not great literature, captured some of that teenage love-struck angst very well… even the Anita Blake books, bad as they are, had some good passion in the first 5-7 books), but this ‘great romance’ really felt very arbitrary and neither of the characters felt special enough for me to feel allegiance or get emotionally involved.

The author apparently wanted to make this book bursting with action and couldn’t quite decide if it was a romance, a fantasy, or a historical novel. I mean, we have: time-travel, the Loch Ness Monster, a witch-hunt, herb-lore, weaponry, wolf attacks (including Claire killing one wolf with her bare hands. She is talented, isn’t she?), Scots-English tensions, and, of course, a prison-rape scene, complete with sadistic torture and then a cattle invasion (yes, in the prison).

To some folks, maybe this equals a novel bristling with action and adventure and so many bright sparkly events to keep you entertained at every turn, but to me, it just felt overstuffed and didn’t really delve deeply enough into any of these aspects — it just skimmed along, as I felt compelled to do more than once. Maybe this has to do with my own preferences rather than any inherent fault of the book, but I just felt like it was a ‘kitchen-sink’ sort of situation where the author just threw in every cool thing she could think of, just to make the story seem full.

**

The final verdict is that I enjoyed the book, with some pretty significant reservations. The romance felt totally unbelieveable and cookie-cutter for most of the book, but towards the end I felt more sympathy for the characters and that helped. I really could not feel very much passion for much of anything in the book (although I have to say, I am really glad that there were no unicorns harmed in the writing of this story), but it was pleasant enough and I really did enjoy the Scottish setting and some of the history. The time-travel aspect was interesting too but really was not explored very deeply. However, I understand that this really wasn’t a sci-fi/fantasy book so I can forgive that lack of detail.

I can’t help but compare this book to The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I very much enjoyed. TTTW was also not really a sci-fi/fantasy book, but the tricky time-travel stuff was handled so elegantly and cleverly, and the romance felt real and tender and believeable. A totally different book, but so very well-done. It was intricately plotted; vital pieces of information were doled out with precision and only gradually did the complete picture come into view — but everything was done for a reason, and it all came together in the end.

By contrast, Outlander felt stiff and plodded along in a straight line. It’s telling that I never really had a clear picture in my mind of how either Claire or Jamie looked; you know how usually you get a really clear picture of a character in your head? Both Jamie and Claire remained unformed in my head, try as I might to piece them together.

But, it was a relatively entertaining read and I was motivated to finish it, and was happy with the ending. It certainly did not tax my brain at all and I enjoyed enough of it to not consider it a waste of time. It’s definitely a ‘summer read’. I don’t quite get all the hype about the book though — it didn’t really seem like anything special. I did a little investigating into other bloggers’ thoughts about it and everyone else was like, “I loved it!” “Amazing book!” “I’m so glad that this is a series!” “The best book I’ve read in a long time!” I didn’t have that reaction at all and I don’t really get why this book is so popular as opposed to any other romance series.

So. (dusts off hands) That’s done. What’s next? Julie & Julia just landed on my book stack, so I might attack that next. I also apparently requested those Michael Pollan eating books from the library (the library just called to have me come get my requested items) but I’m not sure I feel like reading those quite yet. Oh, the choices. Lucky me.

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