I had heard a lot about Outlander, the famous romance novel involving a nurse from the 1940s who travels back in time and falls in love with a handsome Scotsman. Many of my female friends love the book and its sequels, and I heard the TV show being lauded as Game of Thrones, but for women. So I thought it would be educational for me to read the novel and see what all the fuss was about. I’ve never really read much in the romance genre, which always seemed like a shame because surely there’s some good stuff there that I am missing out on. Outlander is often given as an example of a great romance novel, so I figured I should try it.
Before I go on, I want to acknowledge up front that I’m decidedly not the target audience for Outlander. I get that. That was actually part of the appeal: so much fiction is written with “white straight male” as the target audience that I wanted to see what it would be like to read something that wasn’t “for me”.
Sadly, I have to report that I really didn’t like it very much, and I am shocked that women do.
The first half of the book was fine. I read it in one huge gulp while traveling overseas, and while the writing wasn’t amazing, it was a pretty good story. But then two things happened. First, I wasn’t traveling anymore so my chunks of reading time were much more fragmented, meaning I could only read smaller passages at a time. This always leads to me being more picky about the quality of writing, no matter what I’m reading. When you aren’t fully sucked in, it’s easier to spot the odd word choices or sentences that fall flat, or minor inconsistencies. But more importantly, at around the halfway mark in the book, Jamie the sexy Scotsman beats the main character with a belt. And then, within a matter of days, she has basically forgiven him. And then he rapes her (but it’s ok because after she says “No, Stop, please, you’re hurting me!” and he keeps going and says he “means to make you mine” and that the marriage vows included the provision that she must “obey”, she eventually says “yes”, so it’s definitely just kinky sex that leaves her battered and bruised definitely not rape). And that was when the book lost me.
From the way the book is written, it’s clear that this incident is supposed to be forgiven and Claire (and therefore the reader, because Claire is very nearly a blank-slate of a character upon which the reader is supposed to project herself) falls madly in love with sexy Jamie the sexy Scotsman. But for me, the moment he beat her and then raped her, the logical behavior on her part would be to try to escape as quickly as possible and go back to her loving husband in the present. You know, the one she chose voluntarily and who does not abuse her? The book from that point on should have been about getting away from this barbaric man, and this barbaric time period and back to the man who she supposedly loves. But nope. She goes to the standing stones that sent her back in time and then decides that she’d rather not go back to 1945 and all of its relative safety and comfort. Her husband in the present, Frank, is a slim academic type who Claire finds ever so boring as he goes on and on about his historical studies. Nothing is so unappealing as an intelligent man who is passionate about his academic pursuits. Much better to stay in the past with Jamie, the big, buff, virile Highlander whose favorite pass-times are (1) finding any excuse at all to be beaten (seriously, like half of this book is about all the times Jamie was beaten in the past, or gets beaten in the present, or is recovering from being beaten, etc.), and (2) sex.
Also, let’s talk about the antagonist in this story “Black Jack” Randall. In what is surely the most subtle subliminal message ever, the bad guy looks just like Claire’s husband from the present! Hmmmm! “Golly, I wonder if she will go back to her pathetic, skinny, nerdy husband who also happens to look like the vile, raping, antagonist?” How do we know he is not just a rapist, but the bad kind that we hate? (because it’s already been established that beatings and rape are ok as long as the victim deserves it and eventually stops protesting) Why, because he’s a homosexual of course! By my count there are two gay men in this book. One is a minor character who, of course, molests little boys. The other is the antagonist, Jack Randall, a pathetic and evil man who gets off on torturing and raping Jamie toward the end of the book.
For most of the book, Claire is an extremely passive and boring character (the better to allow the reader to project onto her). She goes from place to place, obeying what others say, listening in on important conversations without being part of them, making very few decisions for herself. At the end of the book I was excited that she was finally taking initiative in attempting to save Jamie, reversing the damsel in distress trope by having the woman save the man. But of course we can’t have that, so she ends up being held at knifepoint and Jamie saves her by giving himself up as a plaything for the bad guy. Then Claire gets tossed out in the snow, and in a ridiculous scene, wins in hand-to-hand combat with a starving wolf by breaking its neck against the corner of a building (I mean, I know WWII nurses were tough, but come on). And then she gets rescued by some men, who then actually rescue Jamie, somehow, through a plot involving unleashing a herd of cattle in the dungeon? Oh and she kills a man by severing his brain stem with a knife. Because that’s easy to do for someone with very little training or strength.
And then at the end of the book, they flee to Normandy, and Claire (a) very nearly converts to Catholicism for some reason (mostly so that there can be a scene where a priest hears her confession and absolves her of any guilt about leaving her loving husband Frank behind in the future), and (b) cures Jamie of his severe bacterial infection AND his PTSD by sending him into an opium-induced hallucination where he thinks that she is the bad guy, and he fights her, and then they end up naked on the floor? Yeah, I don’t know what that was all about.
And finally, the book ends with some sexy sex in an underground hot spring and the revelation that Claire is not infertile, as she once thought! The powerful sperm of the sexy Scotsman, clearly superior to the sperm from her boring, skinny nerd husband, managed to impregnate her. Hooray!
Phew. Ok, so clearly I didn’t much like this book. The only reason I kept with it is because I wanted to see what all my friends saw in it. Maybe my problem is just that I’m the opposite of the target audience, but I really can’t comprehend why so many of my feminist female friends like this book. And just to be clear, I don’t mind the loving detail used in describing how sexy Jamie is: I expected that and it didn’t really bother me. Certainly plenty of books that I read are guilty of the opposite: describing female characters in great detail (making sure to mention something about breasts), and then oh yeah also there was a dude standing next to her and he was tall or something. And it’s not even that the writing is mediocre: I read plenty of fantasy and historical fiction books with just so-so writing. It really all comes back to the fact that I don’t get how a relatively modern woman is supposed to just forgive a man who beats her with a belt for “disobedience”. I don’t care how handsome or charming or honest or self-deprecating he is, or how much he tells you about all the times he was beaten as a kid (har har, isn’t it cute how he got beaten so much because he’s stubborn and disobedient? After all, “boys will be boys” and the only thing to do about it is beat them. PS: Claire, Jamie wants to make it clear that if you have kids he’s totally beating them too.) If this book is supposed to be a woman’s fantasy (and for the vast majority of the book it clearly is), then why make the love interest beat her and rape her? I just don’t get it. I’m very uncomfortable with the potential conclusions that could be drawn from that. But then, I don’t understand why so many women apparently enjoy reading 50 Shades of Gray either.
In any case, let’s just leave it at this: I’m glad to be done with this book and very much looking forward to reading something new.