Book Review: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon

This book was not for me, and I knew it within the first 200 pages or so. And yet, I persisted in finishing it. Testimony to Gabaldon’s ability to spin a yarn, or to my own masochism in attempting to complete the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge? Whichever it was, by the time I was able to turn the last page of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, I was also ready to say goodbye to our intrepid heroes Claire and Jaime.

At the same time, I feel like it’s unfair for me to have disliked Outlander as much as I did, because it has to do with my own expectations of the book’s focus and scope. Before reading Outlander, I had assumed it was a fantasy time traveling novel much like that of Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book or Blackout. I expected intrigue and action, following a spunky heroine trying her best to fit into a new (or old, as it were) society without her origins being discovered before making it back to her own time. From its coverage on sites like io9, I simply assumed that this was a fantasy book first and foremost, despite its historical setting.

What I did not expect was romance and sex (both consentual and non-consentual) to take such a central place in the story and plot. As in…the entire story and plot.

World War II nurse Claire Randall finds herself in 1700s Scotland, compelled to stay amongst a clan of Scottish highlanders. Suspected of being a spy, she is held with them and begins to care for a young renegade named Jaime. Romance happens. (And oh yeah, she has a husband in her time period…this could have formed a nice, angsty dilemma, but it was basically dusted under the rug by a convenient monk.)

I am really not a fan of romance, and would certainly not have chosen to read Outlander had I known that, at its core, it is a love story. So many other interesting developments occur in the novel–such as Scottish clan politics and the presence of another time traveller, whose story is frustratingly never revealed–that the insistent focus on romance irritated me more and more.

I also became increasingly uncomfortable with the characterization of the main villain, a gay man who is also a sadist (and, it is briefly implied, incestuous as well). I don’t know that I can muster my thoughts well enough on this to go into it much further, save to say that gay men of this time period and environment were already stigmatized and shamed; I don’t know that it was necessary to also make the villain obsessed with rape and torture as well.

I do admire Gabaldon’s commitment to historical accuracy, and think that she has a nice way of blending academic research with a more character-driven plot. It was obvious that a lot of thought and care had gone into making the characters and setting as appropriate as possible, and that couldn’t have been easy! The writing style, which is quite formal and flowery, had grown on me by the book’s end. It’s also easy to see Claire as the prototype for many of the competent, spunky, brown-haired heroines that have followed.

I think that fans of historical romance would absolutely adore Outlander. As long as their expectations are for a romance novel first and a historical/fantasy novel second, they won’t be disappointed. I wish I had had the same warning!

I read Outlander as part of Roof Beam Reader‘s TBR Pile Challenge!

Bookwanderer Rating: Two out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “For where all love is, the speaking is unnecessary. It is all. It is undying. And it is enough.”
Other Reviews: Eating Bender, Literary, Etc., Paper Droids, Reading in Winter

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