Outlander, written by Diana Gabaldon:
Can we talk for a moment about first impressions of a book? How does it find its way to us? Sometimes, it's recommended by a friend. Or given to us as a gift. Maybe it has interesting cover art that beckons us to pick it up. And once it's in our hands, is it a lengthy book? How is the story described on the back cover? Who does the author dedicate the book to? All sorts of things can affect our first impression of a book, before we even read the first word.
My impression of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon was colored by the fact that it was always popping up as a recommended book whenever I searched something on Amazon. And then the fact that is is so lengthy (I read mine on CD, all 28 of them, or 32.5 hours - over 600 pages in book format). There is an Outlander group on Ravelry. There are tons of comments about the book on Amazon. I had to wait for months to get it from the library, and couldn't renew it because there was a line behind me - even though the book was originally published 20 years ago. So, all that said, I thought to myself: this book is going to be epic.
And after my investment of 32.5 hours, I can say that I wouldn't go so far to say that the book is epic. I'm not even sure I'd classify it as a novel. I once read an interview with Stephenie Meyer, creator of the Twilight series. She was speaking in response to some of the flack about her books, and the quality (or accused lack of) her writing style. She said that she views herself as a storyteller, not a novelist. And I'd say the same is true with Outlander: it's not a novel, but a long, meandering, and (overall, pretty good) story.
Part of this "story" vs. "novel" really stems from the perspective: it is written in the 1st person narrative, and told to us by Claire Randall (more on this idea in a moment). The year is 1945, and Claire and her husband are enjoying a second honeymoon in Scotland. Claire was a combat nurse in the war, and her husband Frank fought in the war, although Claire isn't exactly sure what his role was. Frank is particularly interested in genealogy, and does a lot of research on his great-great grandfather Captain Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall, who was stationed in Scotland for a time 200 years prior. While Frank busies himself with interviewing locals and pulling out dusty books, Claire wanders around with an interest in the local flora, and explores an ancient henge (think Stonehenge). She hears screaming through the stones, and when she touches one of the stones, she is transported to the year 1743.
Sounds like an interesting premise for a book, yes? I thought so, and began reading with high expectations (and that epic word in mind). While I really enjoyed the story, I feel particularly critical of the author's execution, but I'm not certain why. Maybe part of it is the 32.5 hours of my life spent with this book. But I really think a bigger part of it is that it feels like a missed opportunity. To explain, the author does little to play up the biggest "hook" - the time travel aspect of the story. Once Claire is there, and realizes what has happened, she pretty much figures she's there for good and doesn't dwell on the ifs, hows & whys much, but gets right down to the business of adjusting to her new life in a new time. When she is asked by a redcoat (who, coincidentally, is the first person she meets in this new world and he just happens to be Captain Jonathan Randall) who she is and why she is out in the middle of nowhere without any companion (a woman traveling by herself in those days would have been pretty unheard of) she lies, responding that she and her husband were traveling together, but they were attacked and now she is a widow. Then she reflects that she really must be a widow, for Frank is not alive in her current time and place. And then she doesn't think about Frank again for, oh I don't know, like 30 chapters.
This example demonstrates one thing that really gets to me about this book: Claire (our 1st person narrator) doesn't think (or act, for that matter) like a normal person would, most of the time. I would be thinking about my husband, my experience traveling through time, I'd be thinking my husband must be looking for me, etc. And to be fair, Claire does this to an extent, but not in a convincing way. When Claire is given an option for an arranged marriage in order to get out of a sticky situation, she doesn't really think of Frank at all. Her response to the situation is but I don't want to get married or this is just absurd. Since the reader is trapped inside Claire's narrative, we'd be privy to all her thoughts, yet her thoughts just don't seem to match up what most people would be thinking in the same circumstances.
Not only are Claire's thoughts a little out of whack, but her actions are too. Personally, if I were flung into 1743, I would do my best to be as inconspicuous as possible. Claire speaks her tongue to anyone, especially those in authority. Once, she remarked to the leader of the Clan Mackenzie that she knew he did not father his child (being in the medical field, she figured out what disease he had & knew that he was not able to have children)....she told this to a man who has suspected her as a spy since she arrived at his castle. Would you put further suspicion on yourself by commenting on something like that? She also goes around cursing like a sailor, drawing yet more attention to herself because women in this time just don't do that. Claire does a pretty lousy job blending in - I'm sure the author wanted to show a "strong character" but I was just shaking my head at Claire's lack of sense.
In addition to shaking my head throughout the story, I also found myself blushing through most of it. I didn't realize that it was so heavy on the romance factor. So, I mentioned that Claire was set up in an arranged marriage. Poor Claire, forced to marry the one character who was kind to her, charming, gallant & handsome - Jamie Fraser, an outlaw for a crime he didn't commit. Claire and Jamie get along, um - very well and spend a great deal of time getting along (and thanks to that 1st person narrative, we hear all the details). If you like romances, this book is right up your alley. Me, I don't mind some romance in my books, but after a while, it got a little ridiculous.
Alright, I'm almost done with the rant (did I mention I spent 32.5 hours of my life on this book? I did? Oh, sorry) & then I promise I'll tell you what I liked about it! One of the things that got under my skin was that everything always works out for Claire. After a while, I figured this out, so when the author put Claire in a perilous situation, there was absolutely no suspense to it. There are so many situations of near-rape in this book, that whenever one came up, I knew the author would get Claire out of harm's way. (One character - not Claire- is raped in the book, and we learn the details of it through a re-telling of the event. Just warning you - no detail is spared.)
And based on what I've written here, it sounds like the problems center around Claire's character, but sadly, it's throughout the book. There are dialogue issues (Jamie tells an incredibly personal story to a group of people at the castle, including young teenage girls. I just didn't believe that he would actually do that) and character issues (Captain Randall is such a stereotypical bad guy and you could spot his "surprise" appearances a mile away). I had a great deal of difficulty suspending my disbelief throughout the story.
Now, I know it sounds like I thought the book was rubbish and I should have just stopped reading it. In truth, I did enjoy the story. Diana Gabaldon did a wonderful job creating the setting throughout the book. Her descriptions are well written, and I had great visual imagery throughout the story. It was fun to romp along the Scottish countryside and villages in 1743. I enjoyed the history aspect of the story, and how Claire used her 20th century knowledge of 1743 to her advantage. While some of the characters and dialogue seemed fake, the setting seemed very true to what I imagine it would have been.
Being a "story" instead of a "novel" I found there weren't a lot of "meaty" issues to contemplate after reading. What we see & experience through Claire at that moment is really all that is happening in the story. But there was one scene that Gabaldon included, and I was so happy she included it, because it's rather controversial and discussion-worthy. And it tested Claire in ways she's never experienced. I hate to give out spoilers, so I'll just say that Claire (stupidly) leaves a safe place where Jamie specifically told her to stay, in order to try to find the henge to try to get back to her own time (even though it's seven miles away, and she has no food, water, shelter, protection, transportation or apparent sense of self-preservation. But I digress.). Jamie bails her out (no surprise there) but what he does next was a surprise and I'm glad the author had the nerve, if you will, to include the scene in the story. I don't want to reveal too much, but it's really a glimpse of the novel this story could have been.
And a couple of more praises: the reader on the book-on-CD, Davina Porter, is just fantastic. I loved all the Scottish accents she uses. She had her work cut out for her with all that, er, getting along, as mentioned previously, but Porter handled it with tact. I definitely recommend the book on CD (although I would have liked the paper copy, too, just to look up some of the Scottish words or names that are used to see how they are spelled). Also, I really liked the foreshadowing in the first few chapters. Frank sees a ghost (Jamie's ghost) who is staring up at Claire's window one night. And, Claire gets her palm read by a local one day, who gave her a very interesting fortune. I liked these touches to the story, and they got me excited for things to come, which sadly, weren't as epic as I was hoping for.