Book Love, Magpie Reviews

Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

So, for all the years that Outlander has been on the shelves, I’ve spent a great deal of time circling around it in bookstores, only to ultimately walk out without it. I’ve always found the premise intriguing, but so much of what I hear from people who love it always gave me pause. I like romance plotlines, but have never really enjoyed romance as a genre. I always prefer to take my romance with heavy doses of adventure, or sci-fi, or mystery, or really anything. Basically, I like my romance as a side-dish instead of the main course.

And honestly? So much of what I heard about this book made me feel like for all the clever premises in the world, this would end up a bodice-ripper at heart. And I’m just not there for that, really. Additionally, so many bodice-ripping type plots tend to have relationship dynamics that just squick me right out. But the last time I was in the book store, with all the love that’s been swirling around the television show lately, ultimately my curiosity finally got the best of me and I walked out with it.

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And, uhhh, well… I kind of really don’t get why everyone goes bonkers for this. I understand that the premise is really promising and interesting, but the execution is really… not great. At least for me. So much so that I actually had a lot of trouble synthesizing my feelings about this book into a cohesive, but reasonably sized review. The result is this hefter.

Now, before we get into it, let me give a few quick disclaimers here:

1) Considering the reaction other negative reviews of this book seem to have gotten from the fanbase, I do feel required to say right up front that none of the following is an indictment of anyone who did enjoy this book. Everyone’s taste is different, this is just why this did not work for me. I’m not here to argue with you, or to tell you that just because you don’t feel the same way about this or that particular issue that you’re wrong. Book preferences just don’t work like that, and I have no intention of making anyone feel bad or attacked because they DO like this book.

I also freely admit that I’ve got bias going into this. As I said, I’m someone who generally is not super-keen on romance in general, and despite all my hopes for a genre-bender, that’s what this turned out to be. So admittedly the odds weren’t stacked in Outlander‘s favor to begin with. The writing and the execution would have had to be REALLY GREAT for this to end up being one of my faves despite this. And it just wasn’t. But again, just because I feel this way about it doesn’t mean I’m saying that you should.

Different strokes for different folks, as they say.

2) This review will contain adult content. The book is adult in nature and as a result my review will be too. Outlander contains lots of sex, violence, and sexual violence, and I intend address these things as they appear in the novel.

3) Lastly, this will not be a spoiler-free review. There’s just no way I can address all my issues with this book (and the few things I did like) without discussing major plot points. So beware. SPOILERS AHEAD.

Alright, all that said… here goes nothin’…

Outlander

High Hopes at the Start

Outlander starts out decently engaging. Because of the prevalence of the book in pop culture recently thanks to the series, I generally had an idea of what I thought was going to happen, and honestly it started off by throwing me a nice surprise. I had expected Claire and Frank’s relationship to be portrayed as absolutely miserable. Or at least obviously unsatisfying so as to set the stage for her to ultimately find her perfect match in Jaime after the magical time-travely bit. But it’s not. Claire seems genuinely happy with Frank, and the two seem to be generally a good match. There’s enough period squickiness in the dynamic to feel realistic for the fact that it’s set post-war without going overboard to make the relationship obviously unhealthy, and this, honestly, got my hopes up pretty high. Because in that – there’s real potential for conflict. Real potential for drama and development. Potential for this to be something other than the straight-up bodice-ripper I had feared it would be.

Given this new development, I retooled my expectations to figure that the main conflict of the novel would be the struggle she has choosing. That she’d spend a bunch of time gradually falling for Jamie slow-burn style, and then once she realizes her feelings, be confronted with and have to wrestle herself over that fact. The assumption in this then becomes that the ultimate climax of the book would be Claire having to make a choice: Jamie or Frank. Stay in the past, or go back to her time. Yes, it is a generally typical “which do I choose?” romance novel plot with a time-travel twist, but I’m always up for some well-written angst and the 1740s Scotland thing and the way Gabaldon world-built had me generally sold on hanging in there.

The result of all this is that I actually really really loved the first hundred and fifty pages or so of Outlander, and I hadn’t necessarily expected to.

Which then made it extra disappointing when it all began to go awry.

As soon as Claire steps through the time-portal thingy (which, btw, we never really get a clear explanation of, but I enjoyed the description of the time-jump) she’s confronted with Frank’s ancestor, who just HAPPENS to be almost a physical carbon copy of him. After the physical similarity sort of lulls Claire into a sense of security – he tries to rape her. He’s immediately established as what will shape up to be the main “bad guy” of the book – and the attention that the narrative pays to how much he resembles Frank immediately sends up red flags as the set-up for Claire making her decision. So right from the start, you know exactly what her choice is ultimately going to be. That big question mark is virtually gone, and thus the narrative is left a little rudderless.

But still, I held out hope – because for me? Honestly? If I hadn’t been clear enough before, I’m not a big romance novel person anyway. I prefer my romance as a slow-burn side dish in a book, and so I went with it. Because if the big romantic conflict is that obviously solved from the start? That means there’s going to be some other plot to drive the narrative and then I can just enjoy the ride as Claire and Jamie fall for each other.

But ultimately that didn’t turn out to be the case either.

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Deflation of… Everything

The second Claire stepped into the past and found herself set up at Castle Leoch, everything just fell flat for me. The characters, the plot movement… everything just stagnated. Whole chapters whizzed by without anything seemingly significant happening, and Claire lost a massive amount of her emotional depth. As a result, I found myself really not caring and disengaging from the emotional side of things for a variety of reasons.

For one, the plot movement slows to a snail’s pace. There were whole chapters where the editor in my brain just kept screaming “cut this” and “cut this too,” and in the end a lot of the scenes felt repetitive and purposeless to me. How many bandit attacks do we really need if they don’t forward the plot? How many times does Jamie need to be injured protecting Claire from various dangers if it doesn’t result in anything beyond an indulgent sex scene? I understand that some of these disappointments stem from me hoping that the book was a little more genre-blending than it actually is, but plot still needs direction, and actions still need purpose in a narrative. Without that, it’s very difficult for me to become invested.

The second issue I had after the time travel is Claire losing emotional depth, and it starts with the fact that she really seems to adapt to the past just a little too well. As I said before, I had really gotten excited about Claire as a character in the beginning. She was feisty, and competent, and independent, and just a little bit cynical and snarky… All things I love in a protagonist. The beginning took great pains to establish that she was not a complacent character. And to me, that would mean that after being thrown 200 years back in time, she wouldn’t just kind of shrug and be like, “Whelp, guess this is my life now.” But to me, even with the occasional interjections about Frank or getting back to the stones, it often kind of felt like that was what happened. Even her major escape attempt feels half-hearted and out of place.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that in general I feel like the time travel should have had her far more emotionally off-balance about everything. Even as a practical, good-under-pressure WWII combat nurse. Not to mention, I would think there really would be FAR more culture shock at play as well. Honestly, beyond the occasional practical reminders of the time shift (which, admittedly, were very well done. Gabaldon builds the world very well. Particular highlights include the bits where Claire has to learn to heal using herbs and stuff and the discussion of weaponry), the only real cultural shock that seems to be recurrent for Claire is the prevalence of sexual violence (which will be discussed later). And even with that, Claire rapidly just sort of accepts this as par for the course. She feels far too settled, far to fast, and the result of this is that as soon as Claire is thrown into the past, her personality starts to just sort of evaporate with alarming speed. And again, for me? Flat characters are kind of a deal breaker in terms of allowing me to be emotionally invested.

So what happened exactly?

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Character Flattening

In the intro, Claire’s potential for character development and personality are well seeded. As I said, I really really liked Claire at the start. But as we reach the 200/300 page mark, those hints just kind of… never seem to grow. After she time-travels, she often ends up flitting from one thing to the next without any real development, without any real serious emotional reflection. The first person narrative occasionally provides some rather detached feeling commentary, but she is frequently overshadowed by stronger supporting personalities like Mrs. Fitz, Jenny, and Ned Gowan (who were well done and well-written – again, credit where credit is due here). Claire loses her fire, and in many ways seems to lose a lot of her agency and personality along with it. Over time, her character seems to slowly just become a tool by which the narrative has opportunities to talk about Jamie, and Jamie’s past, and what Jamie likes. Her presence just dissolves into Jamie’s shadow.

But that’s not to say that Jaime is all that well developed either. He’s got a detailed backstory, which we learn the intimate details of, but so much of him just seems to be… generic? Too storybook maybe? He’s an affable guy who everyone likes, who always does the right thing, who seems to be incredibly ahead of his time in terms of respecting women (when compared to the rest of the men in the book), oh and have I mentioned that he’s apparently completely drop-dead gorgeous? And a virgin despite ALL the girls wanting him? As I read I couldn’t help sort of viewing him like the male version of a Mary Sue (Gary Stu? Is that still a term people use?). The few flaws he’s given – being stubborn and snarky – aren’t ever even really flaws. They’re presented as endearing quirks.

Now I’m aware that again, this is more of a problem I have with genre as opposed to this individual book. I was expecting a blended genre book, and what I got was mostly romance. And I would imagine that a lot of this is pretty par for the course for a romance novel. I get that you want the main love interest to be as appealing as possible, as perfect as possible. But as someone who generally didn’t go into this book for the romance aspect so much as the interesting plot premise, this kind of characterization does end up being an issue for me, because as a result nothing about Jamie felt real.

The things Jamie should struggle with, the episodes in his past that could have provided great ghosts for him to wrestle with and opportunities for character development – they tend to be non-starters. They get recounted to the reader (as Claire) and that’s about that. Either they’re laughed off in a strange, “oh, that 1740s Scotland!” way, or occasionally when they do have some sort of emotional toll, it’s dealt with and moved on from with startling speed. Jesus, even after he is methodically tortured and raped near the end of the book, the fallout from it is short-lived. I will give that there is an attempt to create emotional strife there, but it was wholly ineffective for me, because at that point Jamie’s emotional life hadn’t actually been developed in any substantial way. Additionally, that too is moved on from quickly. Add some opium induced weirdness and a good banging by Claire and all of a sudden everything’s better.

Which brings me to my next issue…

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Sexual and Domestic Violence Triggers

So, uhhhh, there’s a LOT of sexual assault in Outlander, for no real discernible purpose. Attempted rape, references to rape, actual rape (including a sex scene between Claire and Jamie that to me borders on marital rape), domestic violence… This thing would be a mine field for someone who struggles with these topics as triggers. Because look, I have a higher-than-normal threshold for reading about horrible stuff. My academic interests lie in some of the most horrifying things humanity has done to itself (and that includes a disgusting amount of war-time sexual violence). And yet the prevalence of rape and the frequency with which it’s peppered in like seasoning on a bowl of soup made even me uncomfortable.

What makes it so bad for me, I think, is not that it’s there in the first place. But rather, my issue is that none of it seems to actually matter. It’s just there. Incidents that exist merely as plot devices, and sometimes not even as that. Sometimes it’s no more than a blip in the timeline as if it had been a conversation about bread.

Like, yes, the times were more violent and things particularly sucked for women. But I really feel like Outlander steps a little bit into the realm of “wtf” for me. Particularly when you consider that this is a novel written for a modern audience with modern sensibilities. Claire is almost raped multiple times over the course of the novel, and there are never any emotional repercussions, never any real sense of weight to the incident. She’s just kind of “on to the next thing” about it all. In fact, on one occasion, it’s merely used as a springboard into allowing Claire and Jamie to have rough sex on a hill.

And as if the attempted rape after attempted rape wasn’t enough, there’s domestic violence in here too. After reading the scene where Jamie beats Claire as punishment for sneaking off and getting captured, I honestly just had to put the book down and have a long hard think about possibly DNFing it. And that’s a big deal for me, because I have only purposely DNFed two books in my entire life (Full Disclosure: both were by Brontë sisters. I am just apparently really not a fan of the Brontë style).

And again – I have a pretty high tolerance for reading about humans doing awful things. A domestic violence scene is not enough to get me to put down a book. But what’s different about this one is how it was handled. There just doesn’t seem to be any negative repercussion from it in terms of Jamie and Claire’s relationship, even after he admits to it turning him on (which, btw is a whole separate issue… Jamie gets a LOT of questionable boners throughout this whole adventure, many of which seem very out-of-character for how he’s presented in the narrative). Like, consensual S&M is one thing, but this wasn’t consensual. This was punishment.

And like, great that he promises never to hit her again after that? But still – Claire is not from the 1740s. She’s from the 1940s. And given that she’s been established as a “thoroughly modern woman,” that shouldn’t be something she just gripes about while her tush is sore and then immediately forgives and forgets. There should be real, quantifiable fallout in their relationship from this. It should CHANGE something. If not, why bother including it? Instead, the whole incident only seems to serve as another way to get Jamie to divulge his past to Claire, in this case how he used to get strapped for misbehaving as a child (which he laughs about fondly), and then be rewarded by Claire essentially telling him she loves him for the first time (which also seems like it should be a big moment, but ultimately doesn’t end up feeling like one).

Now, I’ve seen a lot of people write off all this sexual violence as “it was a different time!” but even as a historian, that just doesn’t do it for me (and honestly, I’d really like to see what a historian who specializes in 1740s Scotland would actually have to say about this – I don’t know enough about that kind of social history to comment confidently). And I think the main reason for that is because of the weight – or lack thereof- these incidents are given by the narrative. The only attempt that has any sense of lasting fallout is ultimately Jamie’s rape near the end. All the rest of the violence is just kind of – there. And that sort of brings me to my final qualm with the book.

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Nothing Seems to Matter

Ultimately, the overall effect of Outlander for me was one of distance. Might it be my fault? Stem from my issues with the genre? Absolutely. Ultimately, I had a very difficult time connecting to Claire after she time-traveled, and there were few other characters that really provided any sort of emotional ties. Combine the lack of character connection with the fact that so many things that should have narrative weight just, don’t, and for me the result is a book that just feels distant and a little apathetic, which made me as a reader feel the same. Massive, potentially emotionally shattering things would happen, and then three pages later are all but forgotten. Rapes, and murders, and grand adventures to bust people out of prison or captivity… all of it seemed to be treated with a narrative matter-of-factness that undermines any sort of emotional weight, and overall I found that to be a very strange and detached reading experience when presented in the first person.

And maybe I would have felt differently if the editing had been done differently. I actually found myself thinking about that a lot as I read (something which honestly goes to show you exactly how invested I was – when I’m truly “into” a book, I don’t have the time or presence of mind to start thinking about it from a technical standpoint until I’m finished with the whole thing). I kept making mental editing decisions, asking myself, “What’s the purpose of this scene? Why is this here?” If a lot of the seemingly purposeless scenes were cut, and the focus shifted from Jamie and Claire’s “love for the ages” to a quicker moving version of the plot, I suspect I would not have found Outlander quite as tedious. I may have even very much liked it.

But hypotheticals do no good. Ultimately, the editing decisions that I would have made to have it work better for me would have turned it into an entirely different genre/book anyway. And though I may not like it, the book seems to be working just fine for everyone else as is.

So in the end, no. I did not like Outlander. Not in the least. The reality is that out of 600+ pages, I probably only enjoyed reading about 200 of them. And no, I will not be reading the other books in the Outlander series. Even if this was a full-time book blog, I still can’t see me ever forcing myself through them.

ALL THAT SAID… I Might Give Outlander One More Chance.

I don’t think I’m 100% done with this series though. Despite my distaste for the novel, in the end, the television show will remain on my list of things to watch. The bottom line is that the premise and the characters had such potential at the beginning, but the execution of the prose simply did not work for me. And so maybe, with all the nuance that a good actor can bring to a performance, it might come across as more enjoyable for me on screen. While I’m happy to give up on the book series, I’m not necessarily ready to say the whole premise is a no-go.

So I’m not quite all the way done with Outlander. As I get into my break, I intend to revisit this in the form of the TV series, and we’ll see how things go.

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Overall Rating: 1/5 stars
TL:DR Summary: Yeaaa, this just did not work for me. All the fun premises and hunky Scots in the world couldn’t make this a pleasant read given my tastes and preferences in prose.
Would recommend to: Given my distaste for it, I wouldn’t necessarily enthusiastically recommend this book to anyone. That said, everyone’s taste is different, so if you enjoy period romance, and don’t have any sexual assault/violence triggers, you might end up feeling very differently from me.

Have you read Outlander? What did you think?

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