Today's Recommendsday Reading is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I've held off on reviewing this book, mainly because I wanted to like it so much more than I did. But, its time has come.
From Barnes and Noble:
Claire Randall is leading a double life. She has a husband in one century, and a lover in another...
In 1945, Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon—when she innocently touches a boulder in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an "outlander"—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of our Lord...1743.
Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire's destiny in soon inextricably intertwined with Clan MacKenzie and the forbidden Castle Leoch. She is catapulted without warning into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life ...and shatter her heart. For here, James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, 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.
While it doesn't have vamps or shifters (or even one shambling zombie), Outlander does involve time travel. Because the time travel takes the heroine to the past, there is a great deal of Celtic lore and mythology wrapped into the story. There is a brief appearance by a water horse, possibly a changeling encounter, and it's likely the fae caused Claire's timeslip (fae being a far more interesting mode of time travel than a large rock).
What's great about it?
The depth and dimension of the characters is probably the strongest feature of this book. Claire and Jamie have layered personalities, and Gabaldon does not shy away from showing them at their lowest points. Gabaldon's knowledge of 18th century Highland life is nothing short of impressive. She describes the settings and mores of the time in minute detail. She includes Scottish words and phrases throughout, but uses them in a way that makes sense to contemporary readers without undue explanation. [Blogger's note - this may be the only aspect that doesn't receive undue explanation]
I also like that Claire is an atypical romance heroine. She's older than Jamie by several years in a time when life expectancies were much shorter and a 27 year old woman was nearing middle age. She's sexually experienced and Jamie is not. She's intelligent and capable, but also has moments where her temper gets the better of her and her stubbornness endangers both her and others. She's not perfect and the imperfections make her real.
What's not great about it?
It's a loooong book. I'm not a reader afraid of a book with weight to it, but I felt every one of those 800+ pages. I've seen some reviewers claim they flew through the book, never noticing how long it was. That was not my experience. The extreme detail caused the story to drag for me and I found myself wanting to skip sections of text - something I typically DO NOT do - to get back to the action.
I didn't feel any tension between the life and husband Claire left behind and her new life with Jamie in the past. I didn't believe Claire wanted to return to her own time, or that she really missed her husband. She adjusted to the past and Jamie too easily to be believable.
And here's my biggest problem with the story. I am not averse to graphic depictions of sex or violence, as long as it serves the story. I did not feel this was the case in Outlander. The sex was never quite sexy. If anything, it was unsettling, the big romantic scenes between Jamie and Claire triggering my "ick" receptors. There's a big difference between an alpha male taking the heroine in a way that makes her feel deliciously out of control, and an alpha male taking control of the heroine. With Jamie, although I did like him in a lot of ways, the caveman routine was a major turnoff, especially when he knew how it felt to be forced against his will.
Speaking of, the last 100 pages or so were entirely too much for me. Let me put this in perspective. One of my favorite books is Lover Awakened, in which the hero spends 100 years as a sex slave, abused in every way imaginable until he loses his humanity. So, I'm not necessarily turned off by storylines involving male sexual abuse, even of the hero. But whereas the hero in Lover Awakened walked a long, extremely difficult path towards healing and redemption, none of that was present here. Jamie's abuse seemed completely unnecessary. We already knew the villain was sexually perverted and evil, we already knew Jamie was a hero capable of withstanding the 58 metric tons of bullshit Gabaldon heaped upon him, and we already knew Claire was going to stay in the past. So...what was the point of the extended rape and torture routine? Nothing gained and it completely shaded the entire book for me. Jamie goes from emotionally crippled (duh) to emotionally fine (WTF?) in a hallucinated bout of beating and rough sex that Claire - for some ungodly reason - thought was a good idea. Yeah, I don't get it. At all.
The only excuse I can possibly find for the last 100 pages has nothing to do with the storyline and everything to do with the author (welcome to complete conjecture land, population me). There is a scene, earlier on in the story, where Claire endangers Jamie and his clansmen, and as a result he has to beat her. Is it offensive to my feminist sensibilities? Yes. Can I accept it as a part of the storyline, a part of that time period, and get over the fact that the hero beats the heroine he loves? Sure. I'm reading fiction, I can suspend my belief. I don't know that Gabaldon could get over it, though. Because for hundreds of pages after this scene, Jamie keeps rehashing the beating and/or his reasons for doing it and/or why it's ok for someone to act in that way. He does this not once or twice, but over and over and over
and over again. It's like Gabaldon couldn't come to terms with what she had her hero do, so she had him apologize (to the reader, not the heroine) for the next 400 pages. And then, when all those apologies still weren't enough to purge him of past wrongs, he was punished in a way that made the beating he gave Claire look like a day at the spa. It got old, then ridiculous. I could deal with the beating, but I got so sick of the continued justifications of it I began skipping those parts of the text. I saw no point to the abuse Jamie suffered, and found no believable, tangible healing or redemption that allowed he and Claire to come together for their happily ever after. In short, the last 100 pages kinda ruined the 700 I read to get to that point. There's definitely some fantastic, praiseworthy parts to this story, and I hate that I have such a hard time calling them to mind in light of the way it ended.
I began Outlander with high hopes, having heard little more than praise for the series, and I'm disappointed I didn't enjoy it as much as believed I would. If you can get swept up in the story quickly, than Outlander may be the first of a captivating series for you. For me, it was a decent one-time-read, but I have no desire to continue on with the sequel.