• Bleak House by Charles Dickens
• Hardcover: 1069 pages
• Publisher: Heron Books, No Publishing Date available (originally published in 1853)
• ISBN: 1300203016R3
• Genre: Classic; Victorian Novel
• Recommended For: Anyone who enjoys classic novels rich with characters, plot twists, masterful language and tone, and satire.
Quick Review: Earns a 94 %, or 4.7 stars out of 5. Check out my rubric for my detailed assessment. Bleak House Review Rubric
Truly canonical and a classic. What all great literature should strive for: a balance of well-constructed plot, lively and real characters, perfection in tone, language, and style, and a multitude of themes that forces the reader to ruminate.
How I Got Here: I found some beautiful hardcover copies of Bleak House (split into Part 1 and 2) at a used-bookstore, and decided that I would kick off my Classics challenges with this novel. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since November!
The Book: Goodreads’ Synopsis
Bleak House opens in the twilight of foggy London, where fog grips the city most densely in the Court of Chancery. The obscure case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, in which an inheritance is gradually devoured by legal costs, the romance of Esther Summerson and the secrets of her origin, the sleuthing of Detective Inspector Bucket and the fate of Jo the crossing-sweeper, these are some of the lives Dickens invokes to portray London society, rich and poor, as no other novelist has done. Bleak House, in its atmosphere, symbolism and magnificent bleak comedy, is often regarded as the best of Dickens. A ‘great Victorian novel’, it is so inventive in its competing plots and styles that it eludes interpretation.
‘Perhaps his best novel … when Dickens wrote Bleak House he had grown up’
G. K. Chesterton
‘One of the finest of all English satires’
My Analysis and Critique:
I have written so much on Dickens this month, and as Bleak House is near-perfect as a novel, I will categorize my praise into literary elements:
Plot: Simply amazing. Dickens made use of cliffhangers, detective-style story-telling, and gave closure to all characters and storylines. Surprises abound. I thought the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case might still be going on at the end, but that too was resolved, to my (and the characters’) surprise. Part comedy, part caper, part melodrama, part romance–all good!
Characters: The most amazing characters! Not a single one (well over 50, in my self-made character list) was minor, and each had their own well-defined voice. For more on Dickens’ use of characterization, read my previous feature post.
Theme: So many ongoing and critical themes! The mess of the legal system. The social inequities of London. Misguided philanthropy. The varying types of love. So much to ruminate over in this book. I loved it!
Setting: So often praised for his plot, characters, and themes, I think Dickens’ use of setting might often be overlooked. As I mentioned in a previous post, London is, in itself, a character in this novel. Dickens explores and showcases all sorts of areas in London: Chancery Court, Tom-all-Alones, and the townhouses of the wealthy. Other scenes come to life as well- the rich countryside of Jarndyce’s Bleak House and the homeland of the Dedlocks and Boythorn, Chesney Wold. He even spends a short time in a factory town in the north. All were alive and well-illustrated in this novel.
Style: Dickens’ voice, his satire, his comedy, his disgust and joy, really make this story real, as if you are gathered around Dickens, listening to him tell it. It really makes you envious of those Victorians who lined up to listen to his public readings. He was a very gifted writer; his words are put together as well as Shakespeare’s, and they are a treasure. Like Shakespeare, I think Dickens is one I will want to read again, if simply for his phrasing and the delight I feel at his genius use of language.
One Minor Gripe: Esther. Esther takes turns with Dickens as narrator in this novel, and many readers are terribly annoyed with her. I am not as annoyed by Esther’s sweetness and naiveté as other reviewers, but I do have one issue with her. At the mid-point of the story, she has some belief that a certain man has been in love with her, but won’t love her anymore for certain circumstances (as Mr. Guppy would put it). So, tragically, she gives up this potential romance and goes on being a constant shoulder to everyone around her.
The problem is, I never saw where she got this idea of a budding romance. She certainly had a crush on him, but there was no evidence in the storyline to show that the feelings were reciprocated. We (she, and I, the reader) barely ever even saw him! Well, I saw him more than she did, when Dickens was narrating, but she wasn’t there! From what I saw, they had barely ever had any dialogue and saw each other only a few times at this point. I’m not sure if this was a flaw in Dickens’ plot or characterization. So, I blame Esther. She’s making things up in her head. That’s all there is to it!
My discussion on the Court of Chancery (a major part of the story): “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”
My reflection on Dickens’ use of characterization in Bleak House: Dickens: The Master of Characterization
My reflection on Dickens’ views on philanthropy: “Spasmodic Benevolence”: Dickens and Philanthropy
I’ve been getting all serious and intense with my writings on Dickens, so I wanted to take a break and get all gushy. Which is good because it’s easy and my brain is mush. So, here’s my top ten list of hotties from the different books that I’ve read over the years…
I have to admit, I feel a little silly and school girl-ish writing this one. If my husband reads this, he is soooo going to make fun of me. If you don’t want to read my gushy-ness, tune in tomorrow, when I return to our regular programming. Well, I just had to make that disclaimer.
1. Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
A very long scene that reflects what I love about Rochester:
I stood face to face with him: it was Mr. Rochester.
‘How do you do?’ he asked.
‘I am very well, sir.’
‘Why did you not come and speak to me in the room?’
I thought I might have retorted the question on him who put it: but I would not take that freedom. I answered–
‘I did not wish to disturb you, as you seemed engaged, sir.’
‘What have you been doing in my absence?’
‘Nothing particular; teaching Adele as usual.’
‘And getting a good deal paler than you were– as I saw at first sight. What is the matter?’
‘Nothing at all, sir.’ […]
‘Return to the drawing-room: you are deserting too early.’
‘I am tired, sir.’
He looked at me for a minute.
‘And a little depressed,’ he said. ‘What about? Tell me.’
‘Nothing–nothing, sir, I am not depressed.’
‘But I affirm that you are: so much depressed that a few more words would bring tears to your eyes- indeed, they are there now, shining and swimming; and a bead has slipped from the lash and fallen on to the flag. If I had time, and was not in mortal dread of some prating prig of a servant passing, I would know what all this means. Well, to-night I excuse you; but understand that so long as my visitors stay, I expect you to appear in the drawing-room every evening; it is my wish; don’t neglect it. […] Good-night my–‘ He stopped, bit his lip and abruptly left me.
At this point in reading, I knew
A. Mr. Rochester had it bad for Jane,
B. I had it bad for Rochester, and
C. My #1 for 10 years, Mr. Darcy, had been bumped from the top of my book boyfriends!
2. Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.
Oh Darcy. How I love your social awkwardness and your upfront ways. You had me at “she is tolerable.”
3. Julian from The Forbidden Game by L.J. Smith
Light to darkness, Jenny. Darkness to light. It’s always been this way.
My teen crush. He was the antagonist AND the love interest–it totally threw me for a loop that I was crushing on a bad guy. This one definitely influenced my love for Spike from Buffy.
4. Bill Denbrough from IT by Stephen King
Bill was here, and Bill would take care; Bill would not let things get out of control. He was the tallest of them, and surely the most handsome. […] Bill was also the strongest of them–and not just physically. There was a good deal more to it than that, but since Richie did not know either the word charisma or the full meaning of the word magnetism, he only felt that Bill’s strength ran deep and might manifest itself in many ways.
-Richie Tozier on Bill Denbrough
Before I liked bad boys, I liked the good boys. And Bill was the best. I was 11, he was 11, it was perfect. This was before I knew that the class clown was the way to go–Richie Tozier would have been my book boyfriend if I read IT a few years later.
5. Benedick from “Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare
Benedick, Act 1 Scene 1: it is certain I am lov’d of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love no one.
Bendedick, Act 1 Scene 1, later: In faith, hath not the world one man but he will wear his cap with suspicion? Shall I never see a bachelor of threescore again?
Benedick, Act 2 Scene 3: The say the lady is fair; ’tis a truth, I can bear them witness; and virtuous, ’tis so, I cannot reprove it; and wise, but for loving me; by my troth, it is no addition to her wit, nor no great argument of her folly, for I will be horribly in love with her. I may chance have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me, because I have rail’d so long against marriage; but doth not the appetite alter? […] No, the world must be peopled.
Oh Benedick–you have no interest in love and marriage until you find out Beatrice loves you, and then you’re all lovey-dovey. Benedick and Beatrice are one of my all-time favorite couples, as they are both so witty and are one of the most well-matched and equal pairs in literature.
6. Tyrion Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin
My mind is my weapon. My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer, and I have my mind […] and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.
The beauty of Martin’s writing is that his characters develop so much and slowly through the book, that you find yourself and your opinions of them developing without your even noticing it! This was the case with Tyrion, whom I was amused by at first, then admired, and then, come A Feast for Crows, Tyrion is no longer in the book, and I truly missed him. And no, that’s not a spoiler!
7. Gilbert Blythe from the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Nothing mattered much to me for a time there, after you told me you could never love me, Anne. There was nobody else–there never could be anybody else for me but you. I’ve loved you ever since that day you broke your slate over my head in school.
I think Gilbert might have been my first book boyfriend. Interesting how the very good guys get pushed aside for the rogues, scoundrels, and jerks as we grow up…I wonder what these book boyfriends say about me…
8. Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
‘Sir,’ she said, ‘you are no gentleman!’
‘An apt observation,’ he answered airily. ‘And, you, Miss, are no lady.’
This line runs through my head constantly, as I am truly not a lady either, and can hear Rhett in my head whenever I fall down stairs, curse, burp, punch, etc. I love Rhett’s honesty, and I love that he loves that Scarlett isn’t a lady. He’s the best kind of man–the kind who will let you be exactly who you want to be and are, and love you all the more for it. Plus, he’s witty and generous and experienced! Rhett is the best!
9. Four from Divergent by Veronica Roth
‘You think my first instinct is to protect you. Because you’re small, or a girl, or a Stiff. But you’re wrong.’
He leans his face close to mine and wraps his fingers around my chin. His hand smells like metal. When was the last time he held a gun, or a knife? My skin tingles at the point of contact, like he’s transmitting electricity through his skin.
‘My first instinct is to push you until you break, just to see how hard I have to press.’ he says, his fingers squeezing at the word break. My body tenses at the edge in his voice, so I am coiled as tight as a spring, and I forget to breathe.
His dark eyes lifting to mine, he adds, ‘But I resist it.’
‘Why…’ I swallow hard. ‘Why is that your first instinct?’
‘Fear doesn’t shut you down; it wakes you up. I’ve seen it. It’s fascinating.’ He releases me but doesn’t pull away, his hand grazing my jaw, my neck. ‘Sometimes I just want to see it again. Want to see you awake.’
I don’t know how, but Four made me feel fourteen all over again! He is the newest inductee into my book boyfriends, the latest since Rochester. This scene in particular made me want to write “I heart Four” on my notebook cover and squee! with my girlfriends.
And then there’s this poet who wrote the most beautiful poem that I’ve ever heard. I didn’t quite realize how beautiful it was until I heard it read aloud—and it was read aloud by Heath Ledger, so that really made me take notice. I recommend you listen to it! A big thanks to Amy at Lucy’s Football and GreenGeekGirl of Insatiable Booksluts for introducing me to this poem and Heath Ledger’s reading of it!
[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
• A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
• Paperback: 592 pages
• Publisher: Paperback, 2011
• ISBN: 0143119680
• Genre: Fantasy/Paranormal; Adult Contemporary
• Recommended For: Anyone who enjoys fantasy in the paranormal vein, particularly vampire romance, as well as those who enjoy academia.
Quick Review: This was a good book which had a lot of interesting themes and an excellent use of setting, but was bogged down by extraneous details and a clichéd vampire love story.
Earns a 66 %, or 3.3 stars out of 5. Check out my rubric for my detailed assessment.
How I Got Here: I had heard a lot of positive things about this book, and I believe it was on a few “Best of 2011” lists. I added it on my TBR list in late 2011, and when I recently indulged myself with a trip to the local bookstore, I spotted it and bought it!
The Book: Goodreads’ Synopsis
A richly inventive novel about a centuries-old vampire, a spellbound witch, and the mysterious manuscript that draws them together.
Deep in the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell.
Debut novelist Deborah Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense. Diana is a bold heroine who meets her equal in vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and gradually warms up to him as their alliance deepens into an intimacy that violates age-old taboos. This smart, sophisticated story harks back to the novels of Anne Rice, but it is as contemporary and sensual as the Twilight series-with an extra serving of historical realism.
My Analysis and Critique:
As Jessica from Shhh Mommy’s Blogging commented, this book is not rocket science. Yet, it is somewhat long at 592 pages, mainly due to a lot of details! I’m going to say that I liked this book, it was satisfactory. Because I have almost equal amounts of praise and complaints about A Discovery of Witches, I’m going to split this review into halves–what I loved and what troubled me. Let’s start on a positive note!
What I Loved:
I absolutely loved the descriptions of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. In the first third of the book, the protagonist Diana spends nearly all of her time doing research, and Harkness’ details really make the library come to life. As a library lover (especially university libraries), for me, this was wonderful, and made me realize how much I miss academic research in the stacks. Also, I really want to visit this library in the future!
Actually, I really liked all of Harkness’ descriptions of setting. The protagonist spends time in a castle in France, and her former home in upstate New York, and I really felt that these settings came to life as I read. Much appreciated.
In addition, I really enjoyed Harkness’ use of science and history in her novel. Diana is a historian and her love interest, Matthew, is a scientist, and their respective interests added a nice academic tone to the novel. I’m still not quite sure how the details of their research added to the overall plot, but I enjoyed them all the same.
Finally, I enjoyed the witchcraft in the novel. There wasn’t much, as Diana is a very reluctant witch, but the little bit that was there was fun.
Now, here’s my problems…
Harkness’ writing felt muddled and disorganized at times. Often, I’d have to double-check to see if I missed something. But, I didn’t; it was usually just an extra, unnecessary detail.
Which is truly the main flaw with this novel–too many details! Harkness includes every possible detail, even if it’s insignificant. For example, in one sentence, a character is sitting in “grandma’s recently returned rocker”. Now, I’m a careful reader, so when I see “recently returned,” I’m thinking “What? What did I miss? When was the rocker not there? When was it returned? Is this important?” It wasn’t. It wasn’t mentioned before, and it didn’t come up after, and had nothing to do with the plot. This seems small, but extraneous details like this occur again and again, while lots of loose ends in the plot never get tied up.
For example, a seemingly important plot element is that there’s been a series of murders being committed by vampires in the opening of the book. While this gets explained a bit in the middle, Harkness makes it seem as if these vampire murders are really relevant to the plot, but they’re not. There are many other examples of loose ends in the novel that I can’t even remember because they got lost in all of the details.
Another issue with Harkness’ novel is all of the apparent mind-reading between Diana and her vampire Matthew. While mind-reading is (or will be) one of Diana’s powers, Matthew does not have this power (unless that is one detail that Harkness actually did leave out). Yet, there are a few times in the story where it seems as if he can read Diana’s mind. Diana is the first person narrator, and sometimes she will think about something in her narration, and Matthew responds to these thoughts that were only privy to the reader with dialogue. Here’s an example:
“Shall we walk the rest of the way?” he suggested. “We can take it slowly.”
He was different this morning. He wasn’t coddling me or telling me what to do.
“What’s changed?” I asked as we approached the ancient oak tree.
“I’ve seen you fight,” he said quietly. (517-518)
How did he know what she was talking about? Did Harkness leave out some dialogue? There was no context that I could find to help him understand what she was talking about, and he didn’t seem that different to me, so it wouldn’t have been obvious. If this were a single instance, I wouldn’t mention it, but this apparent mind-reading (or sloppy dialogue writing) occurs often. It really bugged me.
Finally, I didn’t care about the romance angle of this novel. I groaned when Matthew was introduced in the novel as a vampire and it became apparent that he would be Diana’s love interest. Yet, I had faith that it wouldn’t be too bad, as this book had some originality with its academic angle, and Diana seemed like a strong, intelligent woman. But, in the end, it still just felt like Bella and Edward grown up. Actually, once Diana and Matthew became romantically involved, I started scanning all of their lovey-dovey pages. Not even scanning, just skipping. Boring!
Overall, while I did enjoy the settings described in the novel, and I found the academia, history, and science themes original and interesting, and I loved the little bits of witchcraft involved, A Discovery of Witches was really bogged down by extraneous details and a “been there, done that” vampire love story. Yet, I probably will read the next novel in the trilogy, as Harkness will delve into Elizabethan England, as she did with Oxford and academia with this one.
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s top ten list is “Top Ten Books I Read That Were Outside Of My Comfort Zone“.
My comfort zone has changed and expanded over the years. With that said, my list is designed around different genres–sometimes I read a book in a genre I feel completely comfortable with only to be bombarded with a book of the genre that freaks me out; other times, I simply have read a book that belongs to a genre that I don’t feel comfortable with and sometimes have very positive results, forcing me to expand my comfort zone. Then, there are those few occasions where the book itself just feels wrong to me–it’s not that it doesn’t fit the genre, but it doesn’t fit the established plot line created for the book itself (attention Twi-tards). Here are the genres and the books that challenged my comfort zone.
Horror- Young Adult
1. Monster by Christopher Pike
Talk about out of my comfort zone! At fourteen, with two years of R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike reading under my belt, I knew all there was to know about young adult horror. I always knew the protagonist would win in the end, the bad guy wasn’t a paranormal spirit, but a pissed off ex-boyfriend, and every cover would have a tag-line like “She loved him…to death!” Then I read Monster in the summer of 1993. I was horrified! The protagonist was a flesh-eating monster. She was progressively killing all of her friends and eating them! This broke all of the rules I knew and I was appalled! I couldn’t finish it and I had to get rid of it before my little sister read it (she always read my books when I was done with them). What did I do? I ripped up my paperback into little pieces and flushed it down the toilet! Dramatic, I know, but I was entering the age in which I was allowed to be angsty. Lesson learned: Cannibalism is a majorly uncomfortable topic with me. One of my top fears!
Horror/ Paranormal (Vampires)
2. Interview with a Vampire series by Anne Rice
After the Monster fiasco, I began a new, more adult series. I read Interview with a Vampire, and the next four novels in the series, all through high school. I felt out of my comfort zone at the start–the only experience I had with adult novels in the past were my Stephen King novels and those weren’t difficult for me, as they felt like a conversation with a friend. However, the Vampire series felt difficult to me. It wasn’t until I was the ripe old age of 17 that I realized why–there were NO characters in these books for me to relate to. All of the characters are men–and are usually pretty weak. I felt absolutely no connection to these books! Lesson learned: There needs to be a variety of characters in a novel OR the protagonist has to be relatable. Otherwise, I just don’t care.
Modern American Literature Classic
3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Rape? Incest? Physical and Mental Abuse? Lesbian love? I was a very sheltered 17-year-old, so The Color Purple was an eye-opener for me. I read it for a summer reading assignment before my senior year. Without guidance, this was very uncomfortable for me, and yet I completely got it. I have read this for pleasure since my first experience and I appreciate this novel for being my first introduction to literature that really matters. I learned a lot from Celie and her experiences–both about myself and the human experience. Lesson learned: Read more novels that deal with cultures and experiences that are important, real, and different from my own.
4. The Republic by Plato
I read this for my first (and only) philosophy class in college. I read it, thought I understood it, wrote a paper on it, and got a D on it. I had never received a D on an essay before. Apparently, I didn’t get it. When my professor tried to help me understand The Republic I still didn’t get it. Lesson learned: I don’t do philosophy, but I keep trying.
5. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
“What do you think, young lady?”
“Maybe you should pay more attention to the discussion instead of staring out the window.”
Doesn’t sound like much, but this dialogue between my 20-year-old self and an old professor with a Greek accent as thick as his bushy eyebrows changed my life! I was a Civil Engineering major who needed to satisfy a general ed. requirement, and so I signed up for an Introduction to Shakespeare class. I spent most of the time spacing out, probably thinking about the night before or something, when I got called out in front of the whole class. After blushing furiously, I paid close attention to the class discussion of Hamlet, read the entire play that night to get caught up, and found that it spoke to me personally. I got more out of it than my physics or calculus classes. It mattered to me, and as I read more of Shakespeare’s plays, I found this to always be the case. Shakespeare seemed to be writing my soul–very sentimental, I know, but that’s how it felt at the time. I got a B in the class and the following semester I added English as my minor, and a year later, I was a full blown English major. Lesson learned: The Canon might have been written by a bunch of dead white guys, but they knew their stuff. A lot of the classics are as relevant today as they were in their own time. That’s why they’re “Canonical”–they are timeless and necessary.
6. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
I read this in a Modern American lit class and it truly changed my life. I had never read a “period piece”, a piece of writing that showcased the manners and errors of a certain time period. The exquisite details provided in this book blew me away. These types of books always seemed untouchable to me, and after reading this, I was hooked! From here, I went to The Age of Innocence and then on to Austen. I was never the same again. Lesson learned: Nothing is untouchable or too hard (except, maybe, philosophy). At least try everything once.
Guilty Pleasures from the Drugstore
7. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
I don’t know. Maybe I read this one because I fell totally in love with Ryan Gosling when I watched the movie and wanted more. But, I read it, and I have yet to live it down with my husband. It made me cry and I enjoyed it. I admit it. There is a purpose for every book and at the time I was just a gushy romantic lovey-dovey and wanted to be surrounded by love. So, it served its purpose. Lesson learned: Don’t be embarassed by what you read. It serves a purpose and as long as it meets your needs, it is good. So, read that Harlequin paperback girl!
8. Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
So, I didn’t have the problem in this case. Stephenie Meyer had the problem. I had read the first three books in the Twilight series, enjoyed them, thought the plot was good and working evenly towards its end. And then this happened. Meyer screwed up her own plot line! Now, I realize that authors are the gods of their own plots and can do what they want. But, when you set up foreshadowing, when you set up a potential theme, a lesson, over the span of three novels, each over 500 pages, you’re pretty much stuck with the ending you have designed. Bella wasn’t supposed to get married in the first chapter of this book. Meyer set up this perfect storyline where Bella starts out not knowing what to do, is rather weak, depends heavily upon this gorgeous guy/vampire who abandons her, she finds strength without him, he comes back and now she’s not sure who she is because she has to find a place for both her burgeoning strength and her neediness when the vampboy’s around. She needs to make a choice. Clearly, she will learn that she is strong enough on her own, she needs to continue to develop her strength, and then she can choose from the two boys. Instead, Meyer jumps the shark and marries her off in the first chapter! What?!? It’s all a dream after that. So, I was out of my comfort zone with this book because, for the first time, I read a book with a major glaring error in plot. It was very disconcerting and upsetting. Lesson learned: Just because an author gets published doesn’t mean they know a damn thing about plot.
9. Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose
I rarely read history, but I enjoyed the mini-series of this so much that I wanted to know more. It was a fascinating and engaging read! I was so into it that I also plan on reading D-Day by Ambrose as well. Lesson learned: Not all history books are bores!
Autobiographies and Biographies
10. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
I know, I know. This isn’t an autobiography in the truest sense. It’s a fantasy novel. Yet, as I am reading it right now, I am feeling very much out of my comfort zone as it seems to be mostly a man telling his life story. Sure, there’s magic involved in his autobiography, but still. I really don’t like autobiographies or biographies. I’m not sure why. I think it has to do with someone literally telling me what happened in the past. But, it’s history. Not as exciting as present tense action. I know that I will love this book, but I wish he’d hurry up and finish his story! I want to know what happens next! Lesson learned: As curious as I am about the new Steve Jobs biography, I won’t pick it up. I know I’ll be bored. I’d rather read the snippets on the internet!
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?