Book Review: Outlander

Well! There are gushing reviews of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and there are scathing reviews of Outlander. No one expects it to be literary fiction—it’s popular fiction—though many claim it is great historical fiction (though it incorporates time travel), but the real discrepancy revolves around “rape culture.” I would say one out of ten, maybe twenty, readers get real put off by the way sex and violence were dealt with in Outlander. I am one of those people.

Yes, there are some things to recommend it. About an English woman from the 1940s, Claire Randall is on a post-war, second honeymoon with her husband in his ancestral Scotland when she is sucked into some magical stones and sent back to the 1700s. Following that is a lot of swashbuckling, intrigue and romance that zig zag all over the story before the last page. It’s an interesting story and the best part is the historical detail and really putting ourselves into that time as a twentieth-century English woman. Her time, her country of origin, her femaleness, not to mention her being a nurse and interested in botany, all really help paint a picture of the time which is at times favorable and at times not so favorable, though Claire is pretty judicious and, in the end, empathetic. Those same characteristics also get her in a heap of trouble, over and over and she becomes both the object of a lot of heroism and also a heroine herself. Gabaldon is not only a good researcher, she is a character writer, and it is the characters that often win the allegiance of fans here, especially Claire and her 1700s love interest, Jamie. (Yes, there is a love triangle. Actually, it’s more of a square. And from what I hear of the TV show, it becomes more of a web. Or a mess.) There are other characters, too, that Gabaldon helps us attach to, and ones that we very sincerely loathe. The details are compelling, too, for someone who enjoys history. (I do.) Other than that, the writing is adequate (I only had to re-read passages once in a while and there was sometimes spatial confusion, but) and the plot is pretty good, though I sorta wandered away in my mind when it came to clan issues, but that also had something to do with the pacing which I will address in the…

Cons. There are two rather large things that turn people off to this book (and to the series. Note: most reviewers do like this series, emphatically so). The first is length. The first book is 640 pages, and others later in the series approach 1000. Eight books in, you would have to read 7,500 pages to have kept up. The book I read simply did not need to be that long. The pacing runs really slow for long periods of time, and there are scenes and subplots that really could have just been cut. For this type of book, I should have been engrossed and not wanted to put it down, but it was sooooooo long, needlessly. And the other, even bigger, issue is the sex and violence/rape and love themes running through it from the beginning to a giant firework of it at the end. On one hand, you have Claire appalled and sickened by rape and merely exposing how prevalent rape was (and still is) in cultures where women lack power and a voice. On the other hand, she does do some bending of her ideas and even, a bit, encourages others to comingle sex and violence, even in the marriage bed. It is even implied at times that a true joining of souls and bodies can only be accomplished through painful sex. There was an attempted rape or a rape around every corner in this book. There were examples of corporal punishment being used on wives and on children (one time as abuse), and while we as the reader sit mostly in judgment against these and also wonder about cultural difference, Gabaldon goes on to make a real mess of it all, leaving us in emotional confusion between all the (traditional romance) titillation, love, and the sado-masochism. If that weren’t enough, she pulls religion, specifically Catholicism, into the mess at the end, and the climax of the story takes place in a two-punch of events. SPOILER ALERT, TO AN EXTENT *** In the first, Claire does witchcraft in a monastery and ends up drugging and raping her own husband in order to “heal” him from his brutal rape wounds. And it works! The second involves having sex in a public area of the aforementioned monastery. *** Yikes. In other words, I found some of the scenes and messaging of this book to be sickening and morally repugnant. I wanted to really like the main characters and believe in their flawed love, but yuck too.

So how could I even recommend it? Because everyone else is reading it? Because it is an interesting time-travel book with even more interesting historical details and likeable and hate-able characters? Yes, I guess if you can separate yourself from the rest of it, then that would be why. I do agree with many people who say that you can stop reading the series at the end of the first book. I’m sure there are many more adventures ahead for Claire and Jamie and Frank, but the first book does not leave you hanging any more than most books. If you can live without reading on, I see no reason to continue.

The series, begun in the 1990s and still continuing, is:

  • Outlander
  • Dragonfly in Amber
  • Voyager
  • Drums of Autumn
  • The Fiery Cross
  • A Breath of Snow in and Ashes
  • An Echo in the Bone
  • Written in My Own Heart’s Blood
  • Next: Go Tell the Bees I Am Coming
  • And one final book, so she says
Image from IMDB.com

TV SERIES

I started the Starz TV series (2014–) with my husband awhile ago, but was not really drawn into it. I think I will watch at least the first season, now, just because the book has made me want to put some faces and scenery and visual historical detail to it. I imagine there will be a lot of sex, but I am hoping they tone down the violence-and-sex link, at least in the relationships we are meant to respect. I know some of my family members have been enjoying it.

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