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Cooking with words

I am currently reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I got it free from the Kindle store because it's being offered as a promotion. The book came out in 1991 and is the first of a series, so in that way it's typical of a lot of promotional (i.e., free or temporarily free) ebooks.

I'm enjoying the story a lot, but this isn't going to be an actual review. When you write, it's difficult to stop yourself from analyzing how the story works, rather like an architect will look at a building and say, “Nice, but what holds it up?” Or, when you cook, and you taste someone else's food, you don't just enjoy it, you try to figure out what's in it. This is more in the nature of that kind of analysis than a review.

Outlander is a mix of historical novel, romance, and fantasy. The protagonist is Claire Beauchmap Randall, a married World War II-era nurse who has only recently been able to spend any real time with Frank Randall, her husband of several years, because the war has finally ended. Gabaldon said she planned the book as a purely historical novel; she happened to know a lot about 17th Century Scotland, so she set the main story there. She got her male characters all lined up, but when she introduced the female protagonist, the woman refused to behave like a 17th Century Scottish woman would, so Gabaldon decided the only solution was to introduce her into the story as a modern woman who travels back in time.

That's where the fantasy element comes in; Claire's “time machine” is a mini-Stonehenge recently used by some local Druid-like celebrants. Once she finds herself almost 200 years in the past, she has to figure out how to survive a turbulent time in Scottish history. For political reasons, and to save herself from capture by the villain, she ends up forced into a marriage with a young Scottsman (she's 26 and he's 23) named Jamie Fraser.

The novel won the 1991 RITA (romance's big award) and it's definitely a love story, but it breaks a lot of romance conventions. First off, Claire is happily married when it starts, to a nice guy who has done nothing wrong; we even see some of their sex life. When Claire ends up in the past, with no immediate way to get back, she feels guilty about her attraction to Jamie. Plus, although he's swashbuckling enough for any romance reader, Jamie is younger and a virgin when they marry, rather than the typical pattern of the hero being older and more experienced.

This is what intrigues me. Gabaldon had a lot of choices for ingredients in her story. She could have made Claire an old maid or merely engaged. She could have made Frank an ogre. All those things would have made Clarie's decision on where to live her life— the future with Frank or the past with Jamie— much easier. Instead, Claire has to choose between two good men, a much harder decision, one with no way not to hurt one of them.

Gabaldon also chooses to show Scotland of the time with all its inherent violence and sexism. A woman in an ordinary, 1945 dress is treated like she's a whore because she's leaving so much of her body uncovered. Most punishments involved physical abuse, from whipping to nailing someone's ear to the pillory to burning at the stake. I think Gabaldon was smart to make Claire truly a modern woman instead of merely a 17th Century woman with modern ideas. To use the cookbook analogy, fresh basil is a much stronger ingredient than dried and ground basil that has sat on a spice shelf for a year. The real thing is always better.

To use the recipe analogy further, because Jamie and the other Scots are all men of their time, Gabaldon can give them traits that modern eyes might see as flaws but were in fact highly typical of that era. This makes for a spicier mix of characters. In particular, the Laid of the castle is a complex man keeps an aviary of birds, struggles with physical disability in a time when leaders led men in battle, and is not above disposing of (as in killing) anyone he sees as a threat to his dynasty by whatever means is at hand. That combination would be hard to do in a modern-day leader and still leave him in any way admirable.

So, I'm nearing the end and debating whether to go on with the series. It all depends on how much I care about the characters. In creating a novel, I consider that character is always the main ingredient. Anyone disagree?

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( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 4th, 2010 05:02 pm (UTC)
First--I couldn't get through The Outlander. I thought it would be SO ME!!! But what irked me was that Claire had too many instances of living out a fantasy through no choice of her own. Poor darling, she's trying to rekindle a life with her husband after six years apart, but things aren't exactly as she hoped they'd be. While thinking deep thoughts about where her life is going, she is thrust into another world where she meets a handsome scoundrel of a man she is instantly attracted to, then has NO CHOICE but to marry him, has NO CHOICE but to have amazing sex with him. She lives out all these fantasies for women to sigh over, because they might want the same sort of, "I want this so much but I can't do it but if I were in a position of "I HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO GET EXACTLY WHAT I WANT," everything would be fine. Bleh--that was my take, anyway.

Second--that being said, a few women in my book club ended up forming a mini-book club just to read the Gabaldon books. I've been told the second one isn't great, but the third and forth are more like the first.
Oct. 4th, 2010 05:21 pm (UTC)
I think a lot of authors suffer from second book syndrome. You get years to write the first book and six months to write the second!

I get you on the convenience thing. There is a fair amount of that. Claire is also a little dim in places. If I figured out the laird's heir wasn't his biological son, I think I'd have sense enough to keep that to myself. I really like Gabaldon's depiction of 17th century Scotts, though-- the women as well as the men. And I like the fact that they're not at all apologetic about being so brutal. Like was brutal.

I'm just not sure how much I want to stick with it. I guess I'll see when I finish the book.

Oct. 4th, 2010 10:34 pm (UTC)
I think that objection condemns a great deal of romance literature in general. They twist themselves into all sorts of knots to maintain steamy tension between the hot, lustful couple who in real life would be having sex by the end of the first chapter, but the writer has to stretch it out for hundreds of pages. Being forced into doing exactly what she wants is one of those knots.
Oct. 4th, 2010 10:57 pm (UTC)
I think this is one of the reasons I'm generally not a romance reader. I love a book with romance in it, I write books heavily shaded with romance! I think you'd be hard pressed to find a book WITHOUT romance in it. It's the suspension of belief necessary to believe otherwise intelligent people can so fool themselves, even lie to themselves in this intimate way that gets me. How convenient that every fantasy she has comes true against her will. That's just squicky to me.

There are TONS of people who love that sort of thing. I have no stats, but I believe that romance is the best-selling genre with the most loyal fans in all readerdom. As I said, a sizeable part of my book club had their own mini-book club because they loved it so much. It's not condemning the genre to say I'm not a huge fan of it as a genre in general. It's just my preference.

That being said, my two "guilty pleasures" are Sarah Addison Allen and Nicholas Evans. :)
Oct. 4th, 2010 11:13 pm (UTC)
Terri-Lynne, I think you are right that romance is the biggest selling genre; I think part of that is that each romance reader buys a huge number of books. They are, as you say, loyal. But I think the main reason they love the genre so much is one reason non-romance folks don't read in it-- the Happily Ever After formula (aka HEA), and other rules that seem to be imposed. I think romance readers are looking for escape and they want a reliable ride to get there.

I heard a story at Pikes Peak about a romance writer who broke what an agent called "the implied contract with the reader: hero and heroine both survive and end up together. This writer wrote a book where the hero was kind of a bad guy; the heroine reformed him, they get married and live HEA. Then she wrote a second book about their daughter; she ends up with her own guy, but at the end of the book, her dad's past catches up with him, and he is killed. The writer was signing books in a bookstore when a fan came up to her and said, "I can't believe you killed Jake (or Fred or whatever)" and then she launched herself across the table and attacked the writer!

That's a fan with serious Get A Life issues.
Oct. 4th, 2010 11:48 pm (UTC)
Holy WOW!! That's a serious fan--of the character, not the writer.
Oct. 5th, 2010 02:54 am (UTC)
I think she took the whole implied contract thing waaay too seriously.
Oct. 5th, 2010 10:26 pm (UTC)
Oh, romance is huge, statistically speaking. Even if you don't consider outliers like "Twilight," the romance industry is 40% of the market.
Oct. 5th, 2010 10:54 pm (UTC)
That might account for a good part of this book's popularity. Well, I've finished the book now, and I have to say, the two things I did not like were the "too muches"-- too much explicit sex and too much center-stage-and described-in detail-violence-- not the sword fights but the sadistic torture. Ugh! For one thing, it made the book too long; I want every scene--every line, really, to either advance the plot or reveal something about the character. Throwing in scene after scene with explicit body parts either being stroking or being flayed did not do either.

That said Gabaldon does a fabulous job of setting the scene and creating the culture of 18th century Scotland. She had some good plot twists, too.
Oct. 4th, 2010 06:05 pm (UTC)
This book sounds interesting, and at that price (yay free!), I've downloaded it to give it a go.
Oct. 4th, 2010 06:15 pm (UTC)
Yeah, you can't beat free. I'll be interested to see if you like it. I can see bogwitch64's points (above comment), but I still like the story. Of course, maybe "free" lowers expectations a bit, too?
Oct. 4th, 2010 10:42 pm (UTC)
A friend of mine gave me a book further along in the series, when Jamie is a fully mature stud of a warrior hero. There actually wasn't much romance in it; it felt more like it was tying up loose ends from the previous books. Along with a plot about if America should revolt from England or not, because the happy couple had ended up in backwoods America. Don't ask me what that has to do with 17th Scotland; maybe another time travel trip.

Sometimes it read as if the author wanted to complain about male sexism but couldn't think of a modern sexist bad enough to be a dramatic villain, so stuck her heroine in the past so she could give (or think) speeches. But she did have a flair for plot twists that kept me reading along.
Oct. 4th, 2010 11:00 pm (UTC)
>as if the author wanted to complain about male sexism but couldn't think of a modern sexist bad enough to be a dramatic villain,

What an interesting way to put it! In a way, I think that's what you do when you put a modern character in the past— you highlight how things have (hopefully) changed.
Oct. 5th, 2010 10:28 pm (UTC)
I'll try to put it your way next time. I've been looking for a politer way to phrase it.
Oct. 6th, 2010 05:26 pm (UTC)
First of all, OUTLANDER is not (as you've noticed) a typical romance novel! (Far from it.) In fact, although the book was initially marketed as such, and the series was shelved for many years in the Romance section of the major bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders (though this is no longer the case), OUTLANDER and its sequels cannot easily be classified in any particular genre. There are elements of historical fiction, scifi/fantasy, and many other genres in these books.

I discovered the OUTLANDER books in 2006 and quickly became thoroughly addicted. For the past two years I have been Section Leader of Diana Gabaldon's section of the Compuserve Books and Writers Community (http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?nav=messages&webtag=ws-books), which is the online forum where Diana hangs out. Diana likes to hear from her readers, and we're always happy to welcome new people there, so please feel free to come and join us on Compuserve if you have a comment or a question about anything OUTLANDER-related.

By the way, if you liked OUTLANDER, you may want to check out the new graphic novel, THE EXILE (http://www.amazon.com/Exile-Outlander-Graphic-Novel/dp/0345505387/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1263645545&sr=8-1), which tells (part of) the story of OUTLANDER from Jamie's -- and Murtagh's -- point of view. THE EXILE was written by Diana Gabaldon and illustrated by Hoang Nguyen, and it's only been out about two weeks.

Finally, if you're an OUTLANDER fan, I think you'll enjoy my blog, Outlandish Observations (http://outlandishobservations.blogspot.com). I try to keep it as up to date as possible with all the latest news and information about Diana Gabaldon's books.

Karen Henry
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