Outlander is set in the Scottish Highlands in the years leading up to the Jacobite Uprising of 1745. It was a time of huge unrest and conflict between the English and the Scots, with everyone taking sides and everyone suspicious of anyone who spoke with an accent not his own.
Diana Gabaldon does an excellent job of portraying the upheaval through the eyes of people who are just trying to survive in a world that takes no pity on the weak. Her attention to detail is phenomenal and she peoples her story with characters to whom we can all relate.
Claire is one of the great heroines in romantic literature, made even better by the fact that she is a flawed human being, not some paragon of virtue. She is very intelligent, using every bit of knowledge she has to not only survive, but to thrive in a world that is completely foreign to her. She is caring and compassionate, always looking for the best in those around her. She is quick witted and has a sharp tongue, not always a good thing in a world where women are meant to be quiet and obedient.
Jamie is the romantic hero, right up there with Mr. Darcy and Rhett Butler. He is handsome; he is strong; he is honorable; he is what every straight woman dreams about finding in a man. Although he has been through hell and back, he has not allowed his experiences to make him bitter or cynical. He lives his life with joy and humor, never taking himself or the others around him too seriously.
Together, these two are formidable. Gabaldon allows the romance to grow slowly. The two become friends first, promising each other nothing but the truth. Amazingly for a romance, they both keep their promise. This enables them to trust each other and rely on each other completely, not to mention approach each other with a vulnerability that is rare in any couple.
So often in romances, the story is over once the couple has come together. In this story, the marriage takes place less than halfway through the book. Yet, as the story continues, we watch these two grow closer. There are, indeed, the obligatory sex scenes; they are hot. But what makes this novel so much more is that the real intimacy between these two occurs not while they are making love, but while they are talking to each other. It is a rare thing in literature; it works.
Of course, there cannot be heroes without villains. Gabaldon made an interesting choice by having the villain, Black Jack Randall, be a direct ancestor of Claire’s first husband, Frank. Not only does Black Jack share his name, he resembles Frank so much it causes even Claire to miss a step or two at times.
Randall is truly sadistic and scary. Yet, we get enough glimpses of the man behind the mask to know that he is damaged himself, that the time in which he finds himself forces him to be someone he is not. While Claire can adjust, he cannot.
As this long novel unfolds, dozens of characters are introduced. Each is interesting in his or her own way and each is distinct. One of my favorites is Geilie, clearly different from everyone else in either the castle or the town. The reveal at her death of the smallpox scar was a truly OMG moment. It stayed with me long after I put the book down.
As much as I love this book, there are aspects of it that simply don’t work. For someone who has endured what he has, the scene where Jamie beats Claire always upsets me as it feels out of character for such a gentle soul, bearing the literal scars of something similar. I’m not sure what that scene is meant to show us, other than times were different and, by making him swear never to do it again, Claire is making Jamie an even better man that he already is. I wish there had been another way to portray that.
Similarly, the description of what Black Jack does to Jamie toward the end of the book is tough to read. It is brutal sexual violence that succeeds in showing us just how sadistic Randall is. My problem is that Jamie seems to recover from it a tad too quickly.
In spite of these flaws, Outlander is one of my favorite romances of all time. It is one of those stories I get lost in, swept away to another time and place. Not unlike Claire herself.
ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.