October 4th, 2010

books in a stack

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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