AUTHOR: Diana Gabaldon
PUBLISHER: Dell, 1991
SERIES: Outlander, Book 1
THE BOOK: As the new STARZ adaptation gets going, I’ve been thinking a lot about these books. When I first read Outlander (and I came late to the party, only reading this first book after many of the sequels were published), I had the series recommended to me by several people. What I remember is that the recommenders took completely different tacks in their pitch. One person raved about the historical period — Jacobite history was a favorite topic — and the reader loved the many, many details of daily life in 18th century life in the Scottish Highlands. They loved the political upheaval of the time and how these characters fit into it, and were intrigued by the idea of what someone who knew how a historical event would unfold would handle suddenly being a part of history. And another reader swooningly pitched the book for its romance, waxing poetic about the star-crossed lovers Claire and Jamie. They loved the tormented nature of their situation, the heat of their relationship, and the angst of Claire’s impending decision whether to stay with Jamie or go back to her life. This is what I love about reading. The marvelous Duncan Smith talks about how every reader reads their own personal version of a book, and this certainly seems to be a book that speaks to many readers, but it tells them all something a little different.
THE BOOK: The story begins in 1945, and Claire Randall is on her second honeymoon with her husband Frank in Scotland. Claire was a combat nurse during the war, and the couple spent the war years separated. They picked the locale of Inverness for their trip, in part due to the fact that Frank wants to research his family history. When we meet them, they have a good relationship, despite the years apart, and they look forward to picking back up their lives. Claire had seen a circle of standing stones while they were in the area, and one morning decides to return to the spot to collect some plants. There is a buzzing sound, Claire faints, and when she awakens she is in the same spot but something is not right. She meets a man who looks like Frank, but who claims to be his ancestor Captain Jonathan (Black Jack) Randall, a British officer. It seems unlikely, and confusing, but events unfold pretty quickly so move on. The captain attacks Claire (her 1940s dress apparently gives the wrong impression about Claire’s probable profession) when a raiding party of kilt-garbed scotsman interrupt and Claire is captured/rescued. Jamie MacTavish is one of the Scots, and Claire helps him when he is injured, earning some trust from the highlanders, who are baffled by her clothes and manner. She is starting to realize that despite how crazy it seems, she has really traveled to the past. Claire is taken back with the highlanders to their seat at Castle Leoch and settles into life in the past, although she seeks a way to get back to the stone circle and her own life. Oh my god, I’ve barely gotten started and this is a long book…
Look, Claire and Jamie get close, Jack Randall is a wonderfully evil bad guy, and he wants to question Claire and get his hands on Jamie, who has a price on his head because of something Randall actually did. Jamie and Claire have to wed to keep Clarie out of Randall’s clutches. At first they are both reluctant, but good golly there is chemistry. There’s plenty more excitement, some falling in love, some danger, a mysterious witchy woman, some truth-telling, a heart-wrenching decision, a capture, some pretty freaky torture, and a happy ending. Whew.
MY TAKE: The sweep of Outlander is part of why it is difficult to summarize and engrossing to read. It’s one of those books that swallows you up, despite any misgivings about magical mossy portals to the past, evil doppelganders, or insta-love with a man from the past. It just works. Although I loved the local color, the history on the page, and the action-laden plot, I am one of the romantics that just can’t resist the arc of Jamie and Claire in Outlander. This could be why none of the other books of this series grabbed me the way that this one did. I have read through the first three, and while some of those have even more interesting historical plots, the initial romance in the opening volume is the reason I love it best.
Historical Fiction: There are, of course two historical periods in Outlander. The story opens in 1945 before jumping back to 1743. Although the post-war setting is important in the sense that Claire’s experiences in the war are important to her adjustment to the 18th century, it is really the Jacobite era of Highland Scotland history that takes the center stage here. I think Gabaldan makes a really smart choice actually, not having Claire be a completely modern woman. The adjustments would be so much harder for someone used to a more advanced level of technology or the more thoroughly modern woman’s place in society. Claire is still appalled by many of the things that she sees in the 18th century — the levels of cleanliness, the treatment of women, the state of medical knowledge, etc. — I think it would be worse for today’s woman who hadn’t just been through a terrible war. The details of life at Castle Leoch are obviously well-researched by the author. She knows what people should be wearing, eating, saying and all those details help paint the picture for the reader (and for Claire) of the time. And of course, Gabaldon chose an exciting time, with tensions between England and Scotland running high. Romance: Outlander has an unsual setup for a romance, as Claire is a married woman — happily married — at the beginning of the novel. She and Frank have been separated by the war, but their second honeymoon is a passionate recommitment. So when she is thrown together with Jamie, even if there is some attraction (he’s a handsome young man), she is focused on getting back to Frank. It is only after they get to know each other, come to rely on each other, and not to mention sleep together that she realizes that she has fallen for this man. She is still tormented by the memory of Frank, feeling a loyalty to the man, complicated not only by Jamie but by the presence of look-alike Jack Randall. Claire and Jamie come together, but they are pulled apart over and over again by danger and drama. It makes for a tortured romance, which I can’t resist. And although I do love Claire and her spirit, oh my god, Jamie. I would throw over my husband for Jamie, too. Fantasy: The fantasy starts and ends with the standing stones and their time traveling power. But of course the story could not happen without them.
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