It’s one in a series of dark and stormy nights where I’m at, and I’ve finally finished Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. My friend Brittany and I have made a sort of habit of buddy reading trash romance novels together, an activity that I suppose is the natural progression from our early friendship days writing filthy Harry Potter fanfiction half the night during middle school sleepovers. Outlander has been our latest such trash read. (No major spoilers are present in what follows.)
I actually wrote a review of the book a few days ago when I still had a hundred and some odd pages left to go, and it was a snarky review full of complaints about style, bewilderment at the novel’s obsession with prepubescent sexuality, and annoyance with the homophobic strain I couldn’t help but pick up on. Having finished the book, I still hold by my earlier thoughts that the writing is rubbish (why did no one think to enlist a good editor for this mammoth trash pile?), though that’s to be expected in a trash romance novel that’s really only a half-step up from cheesy Harlequins. I’m also still extremely confused about why we’re meant to find it endearing that one of the main character’s favorite ways of bonding with the young boys in his family is to teach them the ways of the Kama Sutra while they’re still toddling about on their ponies and crying for their mothers. And I still object to the fact that the novel’s two only two gay characters are evil, one of them tepidly so and the other so evil that he is the book’s primary villain, terrorizing our hero and heroine in a variety of ways but ultimately most horrifyingly via his sexuality. That was bullshit and lazy character building, in my opinion, and I object to it strongly.
However. There were also parts of this book that I quite enjoyed, and I can understand in this case (unlike in the case, for example, of the 50 Shades phenomenon) why the book, and the series of which it is a part, and the show based off said series, are so popular. Outlander presents us with a good story, and though it drags, enraged me with its shady gender politics, and, suspension of disbelief aside, is often exhaustingly over-the-top in its presentation of calamitous events which befall the main characters practically every hour on the hour, I found myself looking forward to picking it up at night (it’s been my bedtime book for the past two weeks or so).
For anyone who doesn’t know, the plot essentially revolves around a 28-year-old former army nurse named Claire who, whilst on a vacation in the Scottish Highlands with her professor husband Frank, makes a solo visit to check out some rocks and falls through a wormhole in time back to the eighteenth century. In the eighteenth century, Claire is immediately brought to the brink of rape and captivity after stumbling upon the dastardly British Captain Jack Randall, a far descendant of Frank’s who looks so much like him that Claire frequently struggles to distinguish between the two despite the two centuries removal between each man’s existence—an easy mistake. Luckily, dashing outlaw Jamie MacKenzie (not his real name, but no matter) comes to the rescue just in time and sweeps her off to the local castle where she becomes the resident doctor as well as object of suspicion. What follows is a lot of uninspired courtship and cringe-worthy exposition on what it’s like to live in eighteenth century Scotland, and then Claire and Jamie are married, able at last to face together as married people that evil Captain Randall (who crops up over and over again because seemingly he and he alone is keeping strong the British presence in Scotland in addition to his other full time job of exercising a mean vendetta against both Jamie and Claire for a variety of reasons).
The premise is, of course, not original, but I believe the scope could be. Gabaldon has done a fair amount of world building for a romance novel, and it was fun to have that piecing-together-the-vast-puzzle-of-this-world experience in conjunction with the usual romance tropes. This aspect seems to have led to the marketing of this book as highbrow romance, and while I think that’s more than a bit of a stretch, the breadth of the novel does add something to the reading experience. Is this enough to elevate the novel to a highbrow designation? Not so much. As I suggested toward the top, I do think this book was far longer than it needed to be (there were entire sections that felt written to fill in an episode of a sitcom about Highlanders and these sections didn’t seem always to match the mood of the rest of the book; I found them on the whole to be really quite irksome), but as a faster reader the superfluous length didn’t much bother me.
Perhaps my greatest problem with this book is that the two main characters are just, frankly, unlikeable. I’m not one of those readers who needs to feel some sort of affinity to least one character to enjoy the read—in fact, I quite enjoy novels in which every character is a monster or a caricature or what have you—but in Outlander—which is, remember, primarily a romance novel as much as it creeps toward the fantasy genre, too—one needs to like at least one of the two protagonists for the narrative to be effective. Jamie is a bore and a brute, temperamental and shallow. We spend a great deal of time listening to him tell a rapt Claire stories from his childhood and his life as a young outlaw, but all of these stories have beatings or whippings or threatened castrations as their focal point so that all we know is Jamie has been treated harshly his entire life and, presumably, that is why he treats Claire as repugnantly as he does much of the time. About Claire, we learn a great deal more—she was a highly confident field nurse during WW2, was in a happy but mildly lackluster marriage with a man named Frank, and Claire is an incredibly resourceful woman when faced with the prospect of living two centuries after her own time amongst a clan of war-loving Highlanders. She also makes about five billion foolish choices throughout the book and I frequently wanted to strangle her for her stupidity and obliviousness. Still, I’m much nearer to liking her than I am to liking Jamie, and, in fact, during the parts of the book when Jamie is away from her on business or in captivity or whatever it is he does variously, I found myself enjoying the narrative much more so than when the two were together. Still, it seems problematic when the best parts of a romance novel are the parts in which no romance is threatening to occur.
One of the tropes of romances, trashy or otherwise, is that of the squishy moment. Squishy moments are separate from erotic moments; they appeal forcefully to one’s sense of what Love is the way erotic moments appeal forcefully to one’s sense of what Amazing Sex is. Outlander has its fair share of sex, though for the most part it was less graphic/well written/actually erotic than the hype had led me to believe it would be. It also has more than its fair share of squishy moments but for the most part these squishy moments had a deadening effect on me. This is likely largely due to my dislike of the characters—Gabaldon relies for her squishy moments on moments of intimacy in which one character shares personal stories and is responded to with nurturing and understanding and implied unconditional love. This is fine, but the personal stories and thus the moments of squish-inducing intimacy are more often than not repetitive and/or bizarre.
For example, Jamie’s perpetual stock of stories about childhood beatings and horrible mistreatment at the hands of Captain Randall are told over and over again, and we witness Claire cradling his head and running her fingers over his mutilated back with such frequency that it loses its effect. Less is more, Gabaldon. Furthermore, the function of these stories is simultaneously to induce squishiness in the reader and to explain and excuse his often horrifically abusive behavior toward Claire and other women in his life, and nothing kills squishiness like the rationalization of abuse.
As an example of the bizarre squish moments, consider the scene during which Jamie is obligingly rubbing his pregnant sister’s feet while her husband and Claire enjoy with them a few glasses of elderberry wine around the fire. He asks his sister, Jenny, what it’s like to be pregnant. She responds by sensuously rubbing her nipples and waxing philosophical about the heightened sensitivity she’s experiencing while glancing significantly at her husband. Shortly thereafter, the two of them leave the room, obviously to make the beast with two backs, leaving their young son in the room with Jamie and Claire. Jamie and Claire, who have been rapturously aroused by Jenny’s description of pregnancy, start getting down to it, then remember the child in the room. Jamie brushes off Claire’s halfhearted objection to doing the deed in front of a small child by explaining that this will be a helpful object lesson for the child, and they quickly get down to business. One gets the sense that this whole scene is intended to be an illustration of intimate domestic bliss but to me (and to Brittany—probably our longest conversation about any one scene in this book was about this one) it was just odd and borderline incestuous and the opposite of an effective squishy moment.
Also, the ending of the book is just Fucking Weird. I don’t want to spoil anything by elaborating so I’ll just leave it at that. I’m not even sure I could manage a cogent summary of the last thirty pages or so. It was just too Fucking. Weird.
All that aside, I did enjoy the book. I take a perverse sort of pleasure in reading trash, though, and it was the creepy undertones and the happiness I derived from hating characters I wasn’t meant to hate and the good times gleefully mocking the novel with a good friend that made up a great deal of my enjoyment in this reading experience. I haven’t quite decided whether I want to pick up the next book in the series; I do fully intend on watching at least the first season of the show, though, and I expect I’ll decide after that. I’d recommend this book to anyone for whom tearing down trash lit is a source of great joy, but probably not so much to anyone looking for a serious romance novel reading experience.