Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Outlander

If you like reading books with brilliantly realized settings leaving out no details, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is the book for you. I loved that this book didn't shy away from anything, but approached it with the frankness that people have in real life. To warn all you softies: there is sex, and there is blood (sometimes at the same time), but it does not call attention to itself and it is not used for shock value. They are a part of the book because they are a part of life. And living in eighteenth century Scotland is not an easy life. More than following a strict plotline with a beginning, middle, and end, this book follows the life of Claire Beauchamp, when her life is flipped entirely upside-down.

A synopsis, from BN:
Claire Randall is leading a double life. She has a husband in one century, and a lover in another...
       In 1945, Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon—when she innocently touches a boulder in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an "outlander"—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of our Lord...1743.
       Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire's destiny in soon inextricably intertwined with Clan MacKenzie and the forbidden Castle Leoch. She is catapulted without warning into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life ...and shatter her heart. For here, James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a passion so fierce and a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire...and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.
       Her husband is two centuries away, she is related to her lover's mortal enemy, and her neighbors think she's a witch. In this unforgettable novel of time travel, Diana Gabaldon fuses wry, modern sensibility with the drama, passion, and violence of eighteenth century as she tells the story of one daring woman and the man who loves her.


This is a hefty book, but not without its rewards. It took me nearly a month to read the whole thing. The first half of the book proceeds at a very slow pace, but it's relaxing and interesting and keeps you devoted and turning the pages. Relaxing is what I needed. The prose is clear and invisible, which is what I think prose should be. I don't have the energy to decipher my book as I read it. I want a good story. Patrick Rothfuss is another writer who does this. You read the world so effortlessly you fall through the words and into the story, and it's not until you slow down and really focus on the paragraphs that you realize just how beautiful it is.

Claire is a wonderful character. Strong and snarky, she makes a place for herself in a completely foreign new world with grace. She definitely acclimated to the strange life much better than I expected, but she still made mistakes and still called attention to herself as a foreigner, and she was a very realistic person for that.

The book treads a very fine line between "Women were made to serve" and "Women are people, too." Since it takes place 200 years ago, the men hold very strong beliefs about what a woman can and cannot do, and are largely unshakable in those beliefs. It was painful to read several of these scenes, but what was Claire to do? She is one person with a modern outlook surrounded by burly men a foot taller than her and twice her weight. There is only so much she can do to keep her independence. That being said, I think she did a great job at preserving her integrity, and she managed to land a husband who is the most understanding of the lot of them, so that worked out well. He explained to her why some things had to be the way they were, and he was open to changing his own beliefs in return. All in all, it's a very realistic (if a bit optimistic) portrait.

I will say, as relaxing as the whole book was, I was super tense reading it. I was waiting for the other ball to drop the entire time. I can't be too specific about this because I don't want to give anything away, but it's about Claire going back to her own time. It ended up being much simpler that I made it out to be, but until I read the last page I couldn't stop thinking/wondering/worrying about it.

The chapters in themselves are episodic for most of the book. Something happens, they deal with it. At most, a single problem will cover a few chapters. Really what holds the whole book together is the recurring antagonist (who's a real asshole), and he's dealt with finally in the last 250 pages of the book. This also gives the book a defined arc, which is nice. This long journey wasn't all for nothing. And I'll tell you, the ending turned out to be a real mind game. It was pretty brilliant!

I did have some issues. Too many things were convenient. A man haunted by his past into oblivion is not going to come around with one opium-fueled fistfight. The brooding clansman is not going to step out of the shadows to save the day each of the twelve times when it is necessary. The men talked about their emotions way to easily to be realistic, but I guess the frankness could be attributed to societal differences between now and eighteenth century Scotland. Don't let any of these things stop you from reading the book, they are minor. Besides, this book is all about the journey and discovering the people and the world that Claire was forced into, all while being a remarkably tender love story. It's a really fascinating read, and if you have the time to devote to it or want something slow and relaxing, definitely pick this one up!

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