How I Got Here: I’ve been meaning to read this ever since it was a Group Reads pick for the Seasonal Reading Challenge on Goodreads. I checked it out at the library in August and read it to satisfy a task for the Fall Reading Challenge.
The Book: Instead of summarizing it myself, I’ll provide Gabaldon’s own synopsis from her website:
In 1946, after WWII, a young Englishwoman named Claire Beauchamp Randall goes to the Scottish Highlands with her husband, Frank. She’s an ex-combat nurse, he’s been in the army as well, they’ve been separated for the last six years, and this is a second honeymoon; they’re getting re-acquainted with each other, thinking of starting a family. But one day Claire goes out walking by herself, and comes across a circle of standing stones–such circles are in fact common all over northern Britain. She walks through a cleft stone in the circle….and disappears. Back into 1743, where the first person she meets is a gentleman in an 18th-century army officer’s uniform. This gentleman, Jack Randall, looks just like her husband Frank–and proves to be Frank’s six-times-great-grandfather. Unfortunately, he also proves to be a sadistic bisexual pervert, and while trying to escape from him, Claire falls into the hands of a gang of Highland Scots, who are also trying to get away from Black Jack Randall–though for other reasons.
In order to avoid being handed over to Captain Randall, Claire is obliged to marry one of the young clansmen. So she finds herself trying to escape from Castle Leoch and her Scottish captors, trying to get back to her husband Frank, trying to avoid being recaptured by Captain Randall–and falling in love with Jamie Fraser, the young man she’s been forced to marry. The story rolls on from there…
My Analysis and Critique: I really enjoyed this novel. It took a little longer to read than I expected, but I credit that to the richness in description and detail. Outlander spoke to a reader inside of me that I haven’t nurtured in a long while- the reader who, as a young, naive teenager with dreams of true love and romance, read her mom’s Victoria Holt novels with relish. Outlander also spoke to the historian in me.
The first chapters set up the novel with quite a bit of foreshadowing. It includes her husband Frank researching his Scottish lineage, Claire’s ponderance over a Scottish henge, a palm reading indicating her future (past) second marriage, and a ghostly, kilted man staring up at Claire’s window. Gabaldon’s early foreshadowing helped me understand her purpose with the novel and the overall meaning (yes, there is an underlying meaning to this novel, beyond a highlander hunk romance, which I will get to shortly!).
Mainly, what I enjoyed in this novel was the local color and descriptions of the countryside. I also learned a bit about English-Scotch conflicts, herbalism, henges (I didn’t know there were so many other than Stonehenge), and the Jacobite uprising of 1745. This book made me want to do some research, which I always appreciate in a book.
I’ve read many reviews of Outlander on Goodreads, and found that at least half of the readers complained about gratuitous sex scenes. I won’t say that I didn’t notice them, but I know that they won’t stand prominent in my recollection of this novel in the future. What I will remember is the honest depiction of a budding, intense love affair between Claire and Jaime. They began with a solid friendship, circumstantially are married, and exponentially fall in passionate love with each other. It felt right and true to me, never gratuitous.
Another point of contention with some readers is the depiction of graphic violence–namely, a wife beating and a sodomitic rape scene. While I was bothered by both of these scenes, I think that was the point. While readers may be seduced into thinking Outlander is simply a romance novel with historical leanings, it is not. One must remember that Gabaldon was a research professor leaning heavily upon a university library’s stacks when she wrote the novel. I think her purpose in delivering these graphic scenes is clear when considering the flippant analysis of Jonathan Randall by Claire and her husband at the beginning of the novel when they are tracing Frank’s lineage. They are amused that he was a rogue, and Claire jokingly comments “So you have the proverbial horse thief in your family tree?”
However, Gabaldon shows the harsh reality of what a rogue can truly be–sadistic, outrageously violent, and deadly. Randall is no joking matter to the eighteenth century Scots who had to deal with his violent and sexual urges. Through Claire Beauchamp’s story, we learn just how simple, yet dangerous, life was beyond the pages of our history books. I appreciated the honesty in Gabaldon’s writing and the squeamishness I sometimes felt. Uncomfortable is good when it comes to storytelling, it is what makes us assess ourselves and the world around us.
In short, Outlander offers adventure, intrigue, history, time travel, violence, an epic love story, lore, brawls, battle, witches, blood poisoning, a wooden leg, and haystack sex. What more could you want?