Friday, June 27, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Outlander

I have been plugging along through the same book I was reading at the end of last month, and although it's not War & Peace, it's not far off: Charles Dickens' Bleak House. Nine hundred and thirty-three tiny-typed pages long, it doubles as a doorstop, and its labyrinthine plot has me continuously referring to SparkNotes to keep everything and everyone straight. I'll review it when I'm done, which should be some time before my eightieth birthday.

Meanwhile, I'll just review something else. Because I know Mary Mary is reviewing Diana Gabaldon's Outlander for our Sisterhood blog, I figure I may as well offer up my own review of that book. We could call it a counter-review, since I'm pretty sure I can predict the gist of MM's review—and I, in contrast, quite liked Outlander. Enough that I actually read it twice: once about ten years ago, and again more recently when I was on a historical-fiction reading kick as part of my research for my own novel. It held up.

My own battered (and signed!) copy
I've listened to a number of Gabaldon's interviews about the book, and recently saw her give a talk, and she tells the same origin story: Outlander began as a "practice novel" she never really intended to publish. She had only two rules for herself: 1. don't stop until you've reached the end, and 2. do the best job you can. She opted for historical fiction because as a scientist, she already knew how to research; she picked Scotland more-or-less at random. She started with a scene that ended up as page 60: the one with a bunch of rough kilted men in a stone cottage, post-battle. The heroine, Claire, invited herself into the scene and wouldn't go away, Gabaldon says. Claire insisted using 20th-century terminology in an 18th-century setting, further causing problems. Rather than fight Claire through the whole book, Gabaldon opted to go with time-travel to make the anachronistic speech work. Then she had to invent a 20th-century life for Claire. The beginning of the novel, therefore, has a hodge-podge feel to it that puts some readers off—it feels like the story begins right around Chapter 3—when Claire meets Jamie.

Actors portraying Jamie & Claire in upcoming TV series
Claire and Jamie are one of the great romantic couples of modern literature. (Giving the term "literature" some wide leverage, you understand.) Everyone who likes this book will tell you that, and will sigh and go a bit melty at the name "Jamie." I'm not especially keen on romance novels, myself, and yet I do enjoy Jamie and Claire's story. The pair are better fleshed out (um, kinda literally), and have more interesting things going on between them than most romance-novel couples. That may be because Gabaldon didn't intend this book as a Romance Novel, so she doesn't follow the rigid romance-novel script. There's a long twist near the end that has Jamie in a very weak position, for instance—that doesn't normally fly in a romance novel. Claire does some rescuing and repairing, also a bit unusual. The fact that Claire is actually married, rather happily, to someone else before she meets Jamie is yet another departure from the form.

I once heard Outlander described as a marital aid, and Gabaldon says countless women have written her and thanked her for improving their marriages. Personally, I'd think Jamie might ruin it for other men, but you can't deny the book (and all its sequels) are pretty heavy on the sex. Sex scenes are very difficult for most writers to pull off, and often become unintentionally comic or squirm-inducing. Gabaldon, in my opinion, pulls it off. She is very comfortable with sex (she talks about it a lot in interviews, too), and she knows that good sex scenes don't involve a recitation of body parts but genuine emotion between two people. Jamie and Claire have a very developed relationship, and this makes their "sex scenes" into "love scenes," as Gabaldon discusses here. (Excellent advice: every aspiring writer who includes sex scenes in their work really should read it.)


Gabaldon's historical research is yet another reason I enjoy the series. She's a good, solid writer, but there's nothing showy or especially poetic in her work. Her research, however, really shows. I lived briefly in Scotland and spent some time on my own researching roughly that period, and while I'm sure she's made some historical mistakes, I sure didn't catch anything. However, as much background work as she did, she never info-dumps. The historical detail is seamlessly woven into the story. Claire, as a 20th-century nurse, is able to remark on the medical practices of the 18th century in a way another narrator could not: she notices them and describes them, where a contemporary narrator would simply accept them without comment. It's not just medicine, of course, but clothing and food and other customs. Gabaldon may not have intended to include time-travel at first, but she uses this aspect to great advantage once she stumbles across it.

A final point in Outlander's favor has nothing to do with Gabaldon. It's the use of Davina Porter as the audiobook narrator. While I read the book the first time 'round, I listened to it the second, and Porter definitely added to the story. Diana Gabaldon in real life has a great sense of humor, and the book reflects that; Porter really emphasizes it, making the funnies even funnier. Her dramatic timing is spot-on as well, as is her Scottish accent. I enjoyed several sections so much I re-listened to them. I'm not sure I've done that with any other audiobook. If I were a commuter, I would definitely pick this series to make my commutes more tolerable. Not only will Porter and Gabaldon work together to keep you entertained, but there are a gajillion books in the series so far (OK, eight), they are all incredibly long, and Gabaldon shows no sign of wrapping up the series anytime soon. Rush hour traffic? Keep it coming, Sassenach.

Outlander merch, for real insiders

18 comments:

  1. Wow, sounds like fun! The writer's process is fascinating, especially since it clearly worked. I'm always skeptical of time travel narratives but given the strength of the other elements, I expect I'd get over it.

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    1. I hear a lot of people say that about time travel ... I guess it doesn't seem any more fanciful than ghosts, magic, or interstellar travel, so I'm able to put my skepticism on hold and enjoy those stories. So long as they have internal logic, to some degree, and are well told. It is pretty fun! I made my husband read it. :)

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    2. It's the internal logic that tends to bother me. Doctor Who works because the rules are clear and closely followed. The Time Traveller's Wife bothered me, though for a different reason. Take the time travel out of that one, and it's a pretty humdrum story. What I like about your description of this work is that the author had the story idea in place first, then the time travel idea grew out of it organically.

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  2. I really liked this book, too, enough so that there was one point I stopped reading because I was so worried about the characters! I haven't read the rest of the series but oh, boy, Jamie is definitely quite the man ;)

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    1. I've read another couple in the series and then I burned out; but I hear A Breath of Snow and Ashes is the best in the series, so I'm tempted to continue! And she has a new one coming out soon ...

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  3. I have book nine in my hot little hands as we speak! I am sure that there are detractors, but I adore the OUTLANDER books. Jamie is a delicious love interest, and Claire is a strong lead. Her outlandishness in 17th century Scotland is remarkably effective at highlighting how very far we have come in terms of gender equality--even in the backdrop of a 1945ish sensibility.

    So many of my friends have enjoyed the book, despite some continuity errors, I continue to recommend it to new friends. And, I'm not ashamed to admit that my third child's a namesake to Jamie....for Reasons.
    Thanks for the review!
    Veronica

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    1. Whoops! I should have read your comment before responding to Ms. Hatch. :) Looks like the new one is out! Funny about your son's name ... that's fan dedication!

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  4. One of my all-time favorite series. A huge influence on the novels I've been writing. But, yeah, they are very long books.

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    1. There was a time I took copious notes and marked up my Outlander novel a lot; writers could do worse than study Gabaldon, for sure.

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  5. When I worked in a bookstore, I was aware of these books but had no idea what they were about. I did not expect time travel being involved!

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    1. Apparently, neither did the author! :) At least, not at first. It's mostly historical fiction, at least this book. The time travel is rather incidental. (It comes up more in subsequent books.)

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  6. You sure do write terrific reviews, lady. Much to my surprise, I've come to love books that include aspects of time travel in them, so I'm not sure how I've managed to escape reading "Outlander" thus far. Thanks for the nudge. This is definitely going on my TBR list.

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    1. I think you will enjoy it, Susan! And thank you for the kind words.

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  7. I have never read any of her work, but I've known romance readers who swear she's the best writer ever.

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  8. 'she knows that good sex scenes don't involve a recitation of body parts but genuine emotion between two people'

    I'm definitely a squirmer, so I appreciate this.

    I also love her rule no. 2. What else can you do but that? :)

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  9. I know you love these books, so believe me, I don't plan to change your mind! I think Gabaldon has a lovely writing style. Yes, she really does pick up on the language and incorporates that into who her characters are. She writes good love scenes, too, but I felt too many. I think she could have peppered the story with a little more oompf in some of those places. I don't mind a long book as long as it keeps you wanting more of it. Like I said in my review, it wasn't until around page 500 that I really found myself invested in the storyline. Up until then, it doesn't show much direction. It feels like Claire doesn't really care if she makes it back to the stones and is just hanging out in this other time. That's a lot of pages for the reader to wade through trying to figure out what she even wants.

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    1. I've also wondered why she didn't try to get back to the stones right away, but I guess the circumstances didn't let her. I would have been satisfied if she at least thought about going, but like you say, she just adapts to her new reality with effortless pragmatism.

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  10. I love it that both of you sisters reviewed the same novel! It's amazing how tastes vary from one person to the next. Perhaps I should try the audio version you mention, Steph, because it may help me move faster and appreciate the novel more. I'm actually looking forward to the TV series, but I may try the audio book first.

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