Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

First posted on, 6/25/15, this review contains possible but minimal spoilers.

Rating: Outlander_coverFive stars. My original reading of this multi-genre novel in 2011 resulted from recommendations by two close friends. It has been one of my life’s great joys. Between childhood and the present, I have re-read a handful of books for professional purposes in teaching and writing, but Outlander is the only novel I ever read more than twice because I had the personal desire to do so.

Diana Gabaldon also seems to be the only author capable of transforming my fickle attention into steady page turning through what voracious pop fiction readers may consider an extremely long book’s slower parts. Likewise, the Outlander series is the only set of books since pre-teen serials that I have read and wanted to read beyond the second number.

I love descriptive prose as much as a gripping story line, if not more. As a keen observer and detail-oriented worker, I relish work that brings precision and skillful use of literary devices to scene setting and world building. These evident skills, along with Gabaldon’s comprehensive research of historical, mythical, cultural, and practical minutiae, as an outgrowth of her rigorous academic background, deliver a smorgasbord of narrative and literary delicacies. Among the most enjoyable include choice instances of verbal, dramatic, and situational irony.

But it is the thorough investment in the main characters Gabaldon creates in book one that allows reader and writer alike to sustain commitment to the saga across a series of sizeable tomes. The peculiar individualities and extraordinary love of Claire and Jamie drive the entire story. Not just complexity but thorough likeability, despite eyebrow-raising faults (especially on eighteenth-century Jamie’s part), seals that devotion.

The sex is good, abundant, fiery, and sometimes questionably aggressive, but it is also true. By turns, it is true to both characters’ personalities, true to cultural and historical context, true to the high stakes of a dramatic story, and true to an unparalleled intimacy of souls. The most passionate love can be as dangerous and desperate as it is pleasurable and all encompassing. And good fiction is as realistically amoral as it is stimulating.

Readers who object to the bigamy, adultery, and the plot points that enable these should look within for the source of that objection. Told in first person by Claire, the narrative proceeds without apology, another authentic representation of her character, but also without a hint of censorship and certainly without hiding morally compromising facts. Claire is a brave, strong-willed woman; her storytelling would have to be so as well. Deal with it.

Claire and Jamie begin their acquaintance in a moment of extreme physical pain for Jamie, and they become friends under the strain of Claire’s relentless time-traveler puzzlement and Jamie’s sustained restraint before the woman he knows, almost from the first meeting, is the undoubted love of his life. The gentleman protector and the alien healer cannot remain static in their development, and Jamie’s imperfections begin to emerge as circumstances reveal Claire’s impossible choices mixed with a healthy sense of guilt, both earned and unearned.

Her confusion is profound, as it would have to be, but her responses to that confusion ring true in their expression of a determined forward movement, a will to survive coupled with an adventurous spirit even she underestimates. Full of contradictions and imperfections–intelligent, sensual, with a keen sense of fairness and justice, impulsive, emotional, imaginative, humorous, caring, dutiful, independent–Claire is a fully human tour de force. It is only through the mind-bending displacement into a dangerous and distant past that her identity can blossom completely, in all its colors.

Claire’s narrative voice consistently reflects her perspective, and her fertile mind entertains with a dynamic flow of quirk, insight, and vulnerability. The effect is a journey through thought as intriguing as the story of her experience.

Only an equally complex man could possibly be her soul mate. That these two should meet at all is simply one of the miracles of fiction, or mysteries of life (or both), but the impediments to their survival as people and lovers, equal parts fitting and fantastical, succeed in preventing their love from seeming perfect or over-indulgent.

For readers viewing turns in the story as too convenient, consider this: As often as rescue becomes necessary and occurs just in time, the marks of pain, misery, and regret cut deeply into our protagonists, raising further questions without convenient answers and inflicting irreparable damage they can move not past but only through. Wondering how these internal conflicts may be resolved compels the reader forward, as does the anticipation of new, inevitable dangers, tragedies, and bewildering revelations.

Of course, Diana Gabaldon’s mastery of characterization applies to a rich, lengthy dramatis personae. Dougal Mackenzie, Geillis Duncan, and especially Captain Jonathan Randall rank among the most compelling in the first book.

By now, it should be clear that Outlander provokes enough thought and delight to be considered a contemporary classic of popular fiction with distinct literary tendencies. The book, while certainly not flawless (what book is?), both challenges the mind and delivers to the heart, establishing as formidable a foundation to a series as there can be.

Even if you think you can’t stomach the gore and grit or endure the emotional torture and long-held suspense, results may surprise you, another mark of great literature. You won’t know until you read it. Please do.

For my quick reviews of the first three books in the series, go here.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

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