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Book Review: Outlander

This is a three-part book review of the 1991 novel Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. It includes:

1. A relatively spoiler-free piece about the book in general.

2. After an adorable spoiler kitten, some discussion of the book in depth, and

3. The major differences between the book and the first season of the television series.

Outlander is a first person story told by Claire Randall, a combat nurse in the British Army. In 1945, Claire and her husband Frank, after being separated for most of their marriage by the second World War, are on a second honeymoon in Scotland. While alone at a circle of standing stones outside Inverness, Claire is unintentionally transported through time to the year 1743. Adopted as a healer by the MacKenzie clan, Claire is forced by circumstances to marry a young Highlander named Jamie Fraser for protection from the villain of the piece, redcoat captain Jack Randall.

The Outlander books are bestsellers for a reason. Initially promoted as a romance because the publisher didn't know what to do with it, the books are an appealing mix of genres: time travel, historical fiction, mystery, bits of the supernatural, an exploration of gender roles. Diana Gabaldon has a gift for description but doesn't over-explain. The books are exceptionally well researched and the situations, including Claire's many medical challenges, come across as genuine.

But the core of Outlander is a love story, and it wouldn't work if our two leads weren't such strong characters. Claire is a modern woman in every sense of the word. She has a strong vocation, a need to heal people, but she's far from perfect – she's often snippy and stubborn as well as headstrong. Claire's first husband Frank describes her as "the most terrifyingly practical person" he'd ever known.

Trapped in the past as well as in her new marriage, Claire reluctantly falls for Jamie Fraser, and so does the reader. (Well, I certainly did.) Already an experienced soldier at 22, Jamie is physically and emotionally scarred – the victim of Jack Randall, the villain of the story, an enthusiastic sadist who is the ancestor of Claire's husband Frank. Jamie is also the unwilling pawn of his two powerful uncles – Colum, the disabled laird of clan MacKenzie, and Dougal, Colum's ambitious younger brother.

Principled and charming, Jamie Fraser is intelligent and well educated, a natural leader and an innately chivalrous man who protects others. He chooses Claire, an outspoken and unusual "widow" older than he is, instead of Laoghaire, a pretty sixteen-year-old virgin who adores him. This unconventional romantic choice speaks volumes about the sort of man Jamie is.

I've only recently become a huge fan of the book series. Initially published in 1991, Outlander is the shortest of Diana Gabaldon's series, checking in at 629 pages. It's also her first; she wrote it as an experiment to see if she could do it, and didn't initially intend to publish it. International bestseller on her first try. That's impressive.

But while this first volume is the foundation, it is only the beginning of the story. It's the later books that captivated me.

And here is the spoiler kitten before I talk about the novel in a bit more depth.

There is a lot of duality in the Outlander books in general, and this first book in particular, as Claire experiences two different time periods and struggles to work out her feelings for her two husbands. She wears two wedding rings, gold for Frank and silver for Jamie. Frank and his ancestor Black Jack are dissimilar men with the same face. Colum MacKenzie is the brains of the MacKenzies, and Dougal the brawn. Claire and Geillis, two time travelers tried as witches, are opposite in temperament. And so on.

While Outlander is a love story, Gabaldon turns romance tropes on their ear. Claire is happily married to another man when she is initially transported through the stones. She is nearly five years older than Jamie, who is a virgin when they marry. The villain, Jack Randall, is sexually obsessed with Jamie, not Claire. And Gabaldon's characters actually have bodily functions, another anti-romance-novel trope.

The first thing that happens when Claire meets Jamie is (1) she heals his dislocated shoulder, and (2) he covers her with his plaid to protect her from the cold. These actions help define them as a couple pretty much forever after. They decide early in their relationship that they will respect each other's need to keep secrets, but that they will never lie to each other. When Claire finally tells Jamie she is a time traveler, Jamie believes her because of this, and because it completely explains her inability to fit into his eighteenth century world.

What happens to Jamie at the end of this first book is much darker than we would have any reason to expect, but it is also carefully set up from the beginning. Shortly after they meet, Jamie tells Claire about his capture and flogging by Jack Randall four years previously while trying to protect his sister, Jenny. Jamie voluntarily chooses to be beaten in the great hall at Leoch to protect Laoghaire, a girl he barely knows. He marries Claire to save her from imprisonment and torture by the British. When he submits to torture and rape at the hands of Jack Randall in order to save Claire's life, it is completely consistent with his previous actions.

Claire is a deeply loyal person who has never been unfaithful to her husband Frank. She tries her best to return to him, but when she must ultimately choose between her two husbands, she is honest with herself about her feelings and she fully commits to Jamie. It is also consistent with Claire as a character that she risks her life by talking her way into Wentworth and searching that horrifying place, and that she later addresses and heals Jamie's extensive physical injuries and emotional distress without flinching, eventually pulling him back from the brink of death.

For me, this story isn't about Jamie or Claire – it's about the combination of the two of them, the way they fit together as a couple. I've been a voracious reader since I was a child, and I can say truthfully that I find Outlander to be the most compelling love story I've ever read.

While often amusing, Outlander feels ultimately tragic – probably because when the novel begins in 1945, our hero is a ghost. In the opening chapters, Frank sees a ghost that is obviously Jamie Fraser outside the bed and breakfast. Jamie is watching Claire in the window brushing her hair. For me, this is the most upsetting bit of supernatural in the series. Does Jamie's ghost know who Claire is? Is he calling her to come through the stones somehow to be with him?

Or is this the first time that Jamie sees Claire? If so, when did he die in the original timeline? Fans of the series and books often discuss Jamie's ghost. To me, it seems most likely that the ghost is the Jamie that would have existed if Claire hadn't gone back to 1743 and changed the timeline.

Book versus series

The first season of the series took nearly every plot point from Gabaldon's book and tons of dialogue, although some bits are shuffled about and occasionally, scenes from one book wind up in another – like the wonderful wool wauking/hot piss scene in the episode "Rent," which is taken from the second book, Dragonfly in Amber.

Here are the major differences:

— Claire's physical appearance. Book Claire has light brown hair and amber eyes and is shorter than Caitriona Balfe's Claire. (As far as I'm concerned, Sam Heughan's Jamie is nearly perfect, though; while there are minor differences, he practically walks off the page.)

— Since the first book is entirely first person narrative by Claire, the later Frank scenes aren't in the book. Understandably, Ron Moore wanted to give Tobias Menzies more screen time. And by the way, I like that Frank is never portrayed as a lesser man than Jamie. During the war, he was an officer in MI6. If Claire hadn't gone back in time, she might have been happy with Frank – although I think Gabaldon included the seeds of a possible divorce in the opening chapters.

— While all the Outlander books are well researched, some dates are wonky. Book Claire goes through the stones near Beltane (May 1) 1945, but oops, World War II hadn't ended yet. In later books, Gabaldon changes Claire's departure to 1946, while the series moved it to Samhain/Halloween, 1945. And Geillis says she came from 1967; in later books, it's 1968.

— Book Jamie marries Claire with his father's ruby ring, and he gives her a new silver wedding ring after they return to Leoch. So sadly, no Lallybroch ring made from his key. It's a lovely television detail, though.

— Not long after Claire marries Jamie, they camp by Loch Ness and Claire has a quiet, nonviolent encounter with the Loch Ness monster. I really wish they'd filmed this while I completely understand why they didn't.

— Book Jamie received a serious blow to the head and nearly died before the action began. Never referenced in the series. Book Jamie is also left-handed and tone-deaf.

— Book Angus Mhor is a giant of a man and a silent body servant to Colum MacKenzie. Series Angus Mhor is a tiny, loud man and Rupert MacKenzie's best friend.

— There is very little about the Watch in the book, and no MacQuarrie. It is Ronald McNab, the man who beat his son Rabbie on Quarter Day, who gives up Jamie to the Redcoats, not Horrocks.

— When Randall dumps Claire out in the snow on top of the corpses at Wentworth, she has to fight and kill a hungry wolf with her bare hands.

— Jamie's abuse at Randall's hands, as he tells it to Claire, is worse in the book than in the series. The abbey where he recovers is in France, and he nearly dies of a combination of infection and suicidal depression.

Conclusion (because this review is already too long)

Do I prefer the books over the television series? No. I read the first few Outlander books back in the 2000s, and then dropped them. It was the series that ultimately captured my imagination and made me a fan. (Maybe it was Sam Heughan rolling his R's.) Now that I've rediscovered the books, though, I love them deeply. I'm anxiously awaiting the publication of book nine. Come on, Diana! Finish it, please!

Opinions? Questions? Comments?

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. lisam, I posted a long comment on ChrisB's review of the episode, which is here.


  2. I started the TV show before the books, so my imagination of them as I'm reading is Cat & Sam and the rest.

    Wow. Interesting theory about "Jamie's ghost". Love thinking about that, though timey wimey stuff can bring on headaches.

    Spoiler Kitten Rules!

  3. Excellent review, Billie!

    Although the books haven't yet clicked with me, I think I may just need to read them at the right moment, and perhaps that moment hasn't come.


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