Summer 1994. I was stranded in the middle of nowhere with nothing to read.
Okay, that isn't entirely true. I had plenty to read, but it was buried, for the time being, in our carefully packaged bundle of belongings strapped securely to the back of the motorcycle we were traveling on. Accessibility to those books being restricted for a least another three hours, and being entirely unwilling to face the remainder of the ride bored out of my mind with only the black flies for company, I turned my attention to the meagre selection of paperbacks offered in a half-full wire rack at the dismal gas station we were currently stopped at. Certainly not my usual fare, as I flipped past bodice rippers and testosterone-fuelled spy capers, but beggars couldn't be choosers. About to give up, I found a book that looked slightly out of place. It had the ornate lettering and step-back artwork of a romance, but the heft and description of something... more. Given the limited options, I hastily made my purchase figuring something was surely better than nothing.
I returned to my position as passenger on the back of the bike, and turned to the first page.
It wasn't a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.
Three hours later, we had arrived, and I hadn't lifted my head once from the story. I was hooked.
* * *
That is the story of how, fifteen years ago, I fell in love with one of my favorite books (later to become the whole series) - Diana Gabaldon's Outlander.
Yes, it may seem slightly strange to be reviewing a novel and series that is by no means current (the original publication date for Outlander was 1991, making it an 18-year-old book), but the seventh installment of the series is set to be released in September. By my thinking this means that there is no time like the present to convince you that if you haven't yet read this book (and the others in the series), then perhaps you really should.
A brief synopsis, shall we?
The year is 1945. Claire Randall is becoming reacquainted with her husband, Frank Randall, on a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands after serving as a nurse during World War II. On a day trip to some standing stones (think Stonehenge), she finds herself mysteriously hurtled back more than two hundred years in time, to the year 1743, where, as an English woman in the Highlands during the unrest leading up to the Jacobite uprising, she is in a great deal of danger. There she meets Jamie Fraser, a gorgeous 6'4" red-haired Highlander five years her junior who, as an outlaw, is in as much danger as herself. Due to circumstances, Claire finds herself marrying Jamie while attempting to return home to her own time and husband. Sworn by his wedding vows to keep her from harm, Jamie's passion for Claire goes far beyond duty. Claire is forced to make the difficult choice between staying with Jamie and her future in the twentieth century.
So begins the first book, Outlander. It, and the second book Dragonfly in Amber, centre on the Jacobite uprising in Scotland, in the mid-1740s. Voyager (my least favorite of the series, but necessary installment) is the hinge upon which we move forward in time, approximately 20 years to the 1770s. From there, the next three novels, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross and A Breath of Snow and Ashes, are set in the American Colonies in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War.
The (eagerly anticipated) seventh book in the series, An Echo in the Bone, is due to be released on September 22, 2009. Gabaldon has stated that she sees the series ending with as-yet-unwritten eighth book.
So, if you're like me right now you are thinking time-travel bodice ripper, yes? Well, perhaps not so much, because this is a story of so much more. First off, the time travel portion of the book is merely a device to move Claire, with her modern sensibilities, into the larger historical story. She won't be bouncing around from year-to-year, in the vein of The Time Traveler's Wife. And yes, there is a love story. But oh, what a story it is. Gavin McNett, a male writer for Salon, once wrote an article about his enjoyment of the series. He sums it up far better than I could, but I'll give you a taste of it here:
The story appears to be fairly superficial as well: A man and woman are flung into romantic adventures in 18th century Scotland. They gallop across misty moors and gaze at each other from moonlit castle battlements. There's intrigue, and a period of sexual tension, and then lots of serious rutting. But the first thing you notice about "Outlander," long before the castles-and-moors part starts to kick in, is that it's a carefully written book, with three-dimensional characters inhabiting a complex, believable world. The people in "Outlander" seem to have lives. The story seems light-handed and plausible. Events seem to happen for reasons and not simply to push the plot forward. The second thing you notice, just as the book turns into quicksand and pulls you under with a big, wet slurp, is that it does all the standard historical-romance tropes spectacularly backwards and wrong.
Ok, have you gone to read the rest of his article? Go ahead. I'll be right here waiting.
At the end of the day, these are large, compelling books. This is not high-handed literature where every word must be turned over in your mind to discover the hidden depths of its meaning and relevance. This is a good old-fashioned story. A page-turner in the very best sense, rich with adventure and history and larger-than-life characters. There are the themes of loyalty and betrayal, love and passion, family and country and always questions of morality. Rarely are events black and white in these books.
Perhaps what is most important in these books though is the relationship between Jamie and Claire. When I first read the story I fell in love with the characters of both Jamie and Claire (yes, I crushed, and still do, crush on them). There's is a love story for all time, and in the first two books in the series their admittedly hot and torrid affair (with plenty of lust thrown in for good measure) fueled my imagination, particularly as a teenager. But now, as a older woman married for nearly seven years, I find the story more compelling, particularly in the later novels in which Jamie and Claire are in their 50s. Because this is not your average "romance" storyline - the novels allow us to see the characters well beyond your average "happily ever after", seeing their family connections and how the relationships grow and change over the course of a lifetime, through good times and bad, sickness and health, and through the worst that life can hand them (and over the course of the first 6,500 pages, these two face a lot of bad times). The relationship between Jamie and Claire is one of such deep respect and powerful love that my heart nearly breaks with the reading of it.
Diana Gabaldon excels at creating incredibly memorable characters that will stay with you long after the books are over. Her characters are never perfect, nor are they one-dimensional "heroes" or "heroines", they are utterly believable as people more than mere characters, and I have found that this is her greatest strength as an author, and why I return to the books again and again. She never stumbles, having a someone act or speak "out of character", and yet somehow manages to show how they change over time and with age in ways that would be completely expected if they were real people. Finally, her writing is deft and quick, and yet vividly descriptive. For 1,000 page books, they fly along and yet dialogue is never choppy, descriptions never overwrought. She deftly keeps all of the threads of the storyline in the air, and only repeats details minimally to focus the readers attention or remind as to events, as necessary. Over the course of six books I have never found myself confused as to one of the many characters or places or events. An incredible feat, considering the length of these works.
Recently I've found myself reading many books where, at the end of them, I end up asking the question "but what was the story?" Praise tends to be lavished on books where no one really understands the meaning of them, but everyone seems, somehow, to agree that they are Very Important Works (see Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje). Gabaldon's books may not win literary prizes, and they may not be considered high-brow, but they are some of the finest storytelling that I've ever come across. I have
given away lent countless copies of this book, pushing it on my friends and family. Needless to say, I now have competition in my crush on Jamie. This series has become one of my favorites of all time, and I reliably return to these books time and again. They have become part of the small list of comfort reading, to be turned to for a chapter here or there when in need of a pick-me-up.
And, if after all that, I still have not won you over, did I mention that they contain some of the steamiest, sexiest scenes that you will ever have between two covers? Now go, read!