Friday, June 27, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Outlander

Welcome to this month's round of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse hosted by the illustrious Armchair Squid! Pull up a chair and pour yourself a mug of coffee or tea!

This month I chose Diana Gabaldon's very first novel Outlander. This wasn't really a random choice. A little over a month ago I attended a event put on by the local library called "A Word With Writers." The featured speakers were Diana Gabaldon and George R.R. Martin. If you'd like to read about the event, visit Sister Lorena's post here.

Once upon a time I had tried to read Gabaldon's novel, but never finished. I knew why. I'd found it incredibly boring. But, after hearing her speak about her work, I thought I'd give Outlander a second chance. I dug around my bookshelf until I found my copy. The front cover was just as dated as I remembered and certainly didn't make me think that the lovely, delicate Claire was much of a beauty.

The cover of my copy. If you open the front
flap you'll find an equally unflattering
picture of Jamie with a late-80s

I flipped my book open to where I'd left off all those years ago, which was less than a quarter of the way through the novel. I even had an old, faded receipt I was using as a bookmark. It's from World's of Fun in Kansas City and says I purchased the amusement park ticket for $28.54 on July 3, 2000. So, yeah, it's been a while since I last cracked this book open.

What did I glean from reading Outlander this time around?

First off, although still boring for most of the story, I managed to get through almost the entire novel. I have to admit that I still have about 100 pages to go, but I've skimmed to the end and have a general idea of what happens. If you don't know how long Outlander is, it clocks in at 850 pages.

Next, I realized that Gabaldon has a certain beauty to the way she writes. I love how she describes Claire's surroundings in the novel. Or even some things that we take for granted. Like giving birth. Near the end, when Jenny, Claire's sister-in-law describes to Claire, who has never had a child, what birthing a baby feels like it becomes such an intimate moment filled with descriptions I never even thought about when I was pregnant. With scenes like that, Gabaldon has a magical touch to the way she writes.

Going back to the boring bit, I was disappointed to find that I felt like I never really got to know the main character, Claire. So many things that would be questions in anyone's head if they fell through time and into a strange world they knew nothing about are not raised. It's as if Claire knew exactly what to expect as soon as she fell through those rocks. No toilets? Not a problem. No bathing? Not a problem. Expected to wear suffocating clothing? Not a problem. Questionable sanitary practices in the 1700s? Not a problem. There were times when I wanted to shake Claire and ask, "Now, tell me how you really feel about the absence or lack of..." How do you go from having toilet paper to none at all and not feel just a bit nervous about the prospect? Claire never seems to mind not having modern-day amenities. And if the argument is because Frank, her modern-day husband, and all his historical research prepared her for something like this, I don't buy it. Simply put, she had no interest in what Frank did. That was apparent in the beginning of the novel. So, because I felt like I didn't really know Claire, all the strings of lovely descriptions, sex, and bits of adventure seemed to drag in many places.

On that note, the novel didn't pick up for me until around page 500 and the witch trial. Now, that I liked, and the next 200 pages were exciting. I didn't know what would happen to Claire. Would she be drowned just to find out if she was a witch? Would her knight in shining armor (a.k.a. Jamie) show up at the last minute? What I was hoping and waiting for throughout the entire novel was whether Claire would end up back at the ring of stones. If you've not read the novel, I won't spoil it for you. Her final decision between choosing Frank or Jamie was the right one, I believe.

Finally, there are some final tidbits that stopped me while reading. Claire spots Geillis's inoculation scar, but, again, she doesn't think one thing about it, and only on a side note brings it up to Jamie. What? I think my mind would be racing with all kinds of questions. Claire, from the modern world of 1945 knows an awful lot of older vocabulary from the 1700s. Somewhere I heard that Gabaldon wrote the time travel aspect because she couldn't get Claire to curb her modern-day tongue. Um, no. As soon as she's back in the 1700s, Claire seems to know all the lingo. I actually wanted more of her worldly tongue in the novel, and just felt disappointed it wasn't there. There's also an awful lot of spanking or talk of spanking going on throughout the novel. Just a head's up.

In the end, if you're debating about whether to read Outlander or not, then keep a few things in mind: 1) Gabaldon is truly a lovely writer, 2) 850 pages was way too long for something that could have used some extra editing, 3) Claire almost seamlessly fits into the 1700s, and 4) after all that, you may or may not be inclined to read the next novel in the series. I have no desire to read the next novel at the moment. But, who knows? Maybe I'll change my mind in, say, fourteen years!

Check out other reviews on the Cephalopod Coffeehouse bloghop:


  1. Erm, yeah, one of my all time favorite novels. It's curious, too, that you zeroed in on that pregnancy scene with Jamie's sister. That's the scene that got Gabaldon her agent. She hadn't even finished writing the novel yet, but people in an online forum were very taken with how she described that scene, and one of them passed it on to his agent who later scooped her up.

    And one of the reasons she wrote Claire as a WWII nurse was she thought things were still primitive (not the right word exactly, but it's sort of what she meant) enough during that era that it wouldn't be such a shock for her character to go back to no plumbing, no electricity, and no antibiotics. Which is sort of true. My father grew up in the 1920's and his family still used an outhouse and had no electricity, and presumably Claire grew up in a similar situation. Anyway, that's my defense of that. :P

    But, yeah, I agree the books are long and probably could have been edited down some. But I do love the world she created. Great escape. :)

    1. I'm glad you love the books, L.G.!

      I think Gabaldon's writing really shines at times, and that's why I mentioned the pregnancy scene. It's one of those that really connects the reader to the story. There were other times, though, when it just felt like the story got bogged down by a lot of description.

      I can understand the primitive idea of WWII and then Claire being thrust back to the 1700s. That's still 200 years, though, into the past. If I was thrust back to 1814, I'm almost sure I'd have a stunned reaction to being in a place and time I didn't really understand. I guess I was just hoping for more out of the story concerning the strange time-travel aspect. I was watching Back to the Future the other day and one of the things that makes that story interesting is Marty's shock from the people he meets and interacts with. He has this wonderful stunned reaction when he meets his father in the diner. Sometimes I think that's what's lacking in a lot of time-travel type stories.

  2. Ah, interesting to read a somewhat different take on this book that what Stephanie gave us. The book still sounds like something I would enjoy, but it's been a while since I read anything that long. It has to be doggone good to keep me turning that many pages!

    1. By all means, read it, Susan! It has a loyal following for a reason, and I really think it has a lot to do with Gabaldon's style. It certainly isn't a typical romance and has a little more going for it. For me, though, I struggled with Claire and her listlessness at times. It takes 500+ pages for the reader to even finally know what she wants. That's a lot of pages. I think about something like Gone with the Wind and the reader knows right away who Scarlet is and what she wants. She spends the whole book chasing it. Of course, that changes by the end of the story when it comes to Rhett. In Outlander, Claire rarely thinks about Frank, and quite honestly, I couldn't understand why she'd married him in the first place if she really didn't like him to begin with. So, I could never figure out what Claire really wanted for those 500 pages.

  3. Your review was more positive than I expected it to be! :) If you think she needed an editor for this book, you should take a peek at the later ones. I literally use them to flatten things. Like Stephen King, as soon as she became a bestseller she just stopped editing herself. The first book is still tightly-enough written for me—I did an exercise, once, skimming through it and trying to find scenes to cut. I couldn't find much. The pregnancy scene is one of Gabaldon's proudest and she has a few anecdotes to tell about it. The spanking scene ... I really had issues with that one. A lot of readers do. THAT is one I would cut, though I have heard Gabaldon's defense of it. (It bothers our modern sensibilities; the way it played out is likely accurate, though.)

    1. Well, the writing isn't bad or anything. It's the length, and in my opinion the repetition of different things. For instance, the spanking bit with Jamie and Claire isn't what annoyed me. It was the long spiels later on in the book where Jamie describes how his father bent him over a fence and the kind of whippings he would get. I thought, yet again, does Gabaldon have to describe someone getting his hide tanned. And, I know people will roll their eyes at this one, but the sex. I well-written sex scene or two is great for a book, but Gabaldon uses them over and over again, when honestly I think she could have put something more interesting in there. Right up to the end I think she felt she needed to reiterate to the reader that Claire and Jamie are so connected through their great sex. If she'd axed a few of those scenes and replaced them with something as interesting as the witch trial, I think the book would have been better.

    2. I think the fact that the two of you reviewed the same book - partly through design, I realize - is great fun. I didn't know a thing about this series before, myself.

  4. I see this book everywhere, but I've never thought of reading it. Based on your review, I don't think I'd enjoy it. I too would be vexed by all the unanswered time travel questions.

    1. Time travel drives me crazy, too! It's the one sci-fi phenomenon that can never get worked out very well in movies and books no matter how hard writers try.

  5. I've been trying to read this book for a couple of years now (!!) The first thing that stopped me was the time-travel device (which didn't make a lot of sense to me). I set the book aside for a LONG time, but a couple of hard-core fans convinced me to give it another try (you know who you are!). I did. And I'm still trying, but I have to admit that 850 pages seems somewhat daunting :) I do, however, appreciate that Gabaldon is a beautiful writer (I did from the beginning). I'm just waiting for the moment when I get hooked and can't stop reading (as promised by the loyal fans ;-)). I admit that the witch trial element seems intriguing, I'm looking forward to that section.


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