Series: Outlander #1 | Genre: Romance/fantasy | This edition: Paperback (UK) | Publisher: Arrow Books | Publication date: March 4th 2002 | My rating: 4/5
In 1945, Claire Randall is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon in Scotland. Innocently she walks through a stone circle in the Highlands and finds herself in a violent skirmish taking place in 1743. Suddenly she is a Sassenach, an outlander, in a country torn by war and by clan feuds.
A wartime nurse, Claire can deal with the bloody wounds that face her. But it is harder to deal with the knowledge that she is in Jacobite Scotland and the carnage of Culloden is looming. Marooned amid the passion and violence, the superstition , the shifting allegiances and the fervent loyalties, Claire is in danger from James Fraser, a gallant and courageous young Scots warrior. Jamie shows her a passion so fierce and a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire, and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.
I’ve been giving this book a lot of thought since I finished it, and it’s proved to be one of those books that gets more interesting the more I think about it. It’s taken me this long to write this post, mostly due to Real Life but also due to the fact that with all of the thinking, I’ve come to realise that it’s a better book, and perhaps even more important, than I first believed…
Maybe it’s fairer to simply say that it grew on me, both before and after I finished it. Outlander (I know it wasn’t originally called this in the UK, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll stick with it) wasn’t without its problems for me – much of the first half felt annoyingly overburdened with too much minor detail at times, even while I appreciated the clarity of Gabaldon’s picture of life in the Scottish Highlands, in the time period Claire Beauchamp finds herself lost in. That said, it’s the bigger picture that’s really impressive, and what I’ll mostly be focusing on here.
A lot of that bigger picture is, of course, taken up by the relationship that forms between Claire (protagonist, WW2 nurse and narrator) and Jamie Fraser (Highlander, rebel, outrageously cheeky scamp). Diana Gabaldon has been held up as an example of how to write good romance, and I confess that this is why I picked up this book to begin with. I was looking for something to broaden my reading horizons with, and I’ve got to say that this book does the job wonderfully well.
This is no melodramatic bodice-ripper, though there is no shortage of drama, especially in the book’s second half, and it is certainly not afraid to get steamy. More than simply being steamy for the sake of it, though, it’s the lack of pretense, sometimes even the lack of, shall we say, understanding, between these two characters that makes their budding romance so interesting to read about.
‘No, tell me. What did you think?’
‘I’m no goin’ to tell ye; ye’ll laugh at me.’
‘I promise not to laugh. Tell me.’ He caressed my hair, smoothing the curls back from my ear.
‘Oh, all right. I didna realize that ye did it face to face. I thought ye must do it the back way, like horses, ye know.’ (P. 293)
Oh, Jamie. Bless you.
In all seriousness, though, we’ve all been there. The first time’s never perfect, usually somewhat embarrassing if we’re being honest, right? What Gabaldon gets right here isn’t the attractiveness of these scenes, though they do (mostly) have an undeniable charm about them – it’s how true to actual experience they are, especially in light of Jamie’s initially virginal status. Claire’s own status as a married woman, technically at least, also contributes to a lot of the awkwardness she feels, even while she’s undeniably attracted to Jamie – and rightly so. This isn’t easy on either of them, but by the end the love between them is unquestionable.
Therein lie many spoilers, but trust me – by the time I’d reached the book’s conclusion, I was thoroughly hooked on this relationship, and quite thoroughly emotionally invested. The twist here for me is that rather than getting teary-eyed over Claire’s hardships, it was Jamie who earned the deepest sympathies, the bitten nails, even a few curses out loud for what he goes through before the end. Again, that way lies spoilers and I won’t go too far into detail for the benefit of anyone who might not know the story yet – but this switch, from the old familar cliche of making the woman the victim to victimising the man, is an important one because… well, why couldn’t it happen?
It’s a dark turn the story takes at that point, and what really got to me here is that it happens because Jamie chooses to let it happen. It comes down to him or Claire, and he refuses to allow it to be her.
Not that Claire is any sort of helpless wilting flower by now. She can’t prevent what’s going to happen to him, but the lengths that she goes to in order to save her husband are what make the finale of this book so intense. If I had any doubts about her devotion left by that point, the scenes that follow her rescue of Jamie utterly wipe them away.
(Aside for fellow Outlander fans: the wolf. OMG.)
Yes, I am a fan. I was genuinely surprised – pleasantly so – to find what I found in this book. What I found was exactly the kind of epic romance, not to mention solidly fascinating historical fiction, that I’ve since come to realise I want more of. George R.R. Martin might be nailing down all the undeniably grim and ugly sides of humanity, but to be perfectly honest, he can keep them. I’d rather have more of this, please and thank you.
One last thing, though – I’ve read it cover to cover and I still don’t get what’s up with that UK title… Anyone?