Unfortunately there can be way more than one
Once, in grammar school, I passed some junior girls in the corner of a stairwell hunched over a Trapper Keeper. They were assiduously writing, they confided in hushed tones, a Harlequin romance. At the time, I didn’t think it would go anywhere, but perhaps it did and Outlander is it. I cannot believe the dearth of balanced reviews on this book and now, television series. Everyone and their Scottish terrier is in love with it and they will not suffer heretics. Indeed, it took me days to find this beautiful review. I wanted to love it, although the eight book and counting commitment is daunting. It promised everything: a sexy Scottish hero, sexy Scottish sex, an adventurous band of brothers, time travel, AND horses. But it reads like the practice draft the author claims she never intended to publish.
The problems start in the beginning of the first book, never a good sign. There is hardly a dialogue tag without an adverb. Foreshadowing and unsubtle exposition bludgeon us with the suspicion that Frank will not be her true love after all. Nothing is left for the reader to ponder except character development. Well, that’s not entirely true. There is an intriguing and melancholy episode with a ghost outside Claire’s room at the B&B that is presumed by readers to be Jaime but eight books later has yet to be explained. I’m guessing it was thrown in at random like many other plot points and the author hasn’t decided what it means yet. We are supposed to find out in the last novel of the series, but there’s no sign of when that might ever be. This is not to make a case for strenuous suspense; I’m a person who reads the last page first, and we already know that Jaime is the hero. But Frank is such a bland, one-note guy, Claire is constantly irritated by the sound of his voice and bored to catatonia by all of his interests. It’s hard to imagine she will struggle with whom to choose when she gets the chance. (No one does.) And this brings me to the incoherent storytelling.
I don’t object to it being a historical romance – AKA – bodice ripper. I grew up on them. But as it turns out, reading them as an adult is like running into a boyfriend from high school twenty-five years later, or revisiting the original Batman t.v. series you thought you loved as a kid. That’s actually going a bit too far: nothing is that bad. I do object to teasing us with the idea of time travel and then not addressing it at all. Claire wakes up in 1743 and is over it by nightfall, not a thought given to missing conveniences like razors, toothpaste and tampons, and whether or not she’ll ever see them again. I kept forgetting that coming from 1945 she wouldn’t have missed Botox yet. She at least sobbed herself to sleep in injured Jaime’s arms once, but this is something that should have taken at least half of the first book to get out of her system. I tried to read every single page, but after about 200 gave up and just skimmed for the good parts. There were several but written in a surprisingly chaste, fade to black way.
The book is written in first person but we aren’t privy to Claire’s internal struggles or meaningful impressions of her new century. Maybe there are no struggles when you’re a dimwitted narcissist. The only thing evident about Claire’s thoughts is that Frank is never in them, perfectly and understandably fine since no red-blooded human would ever pine for Frank when they’re bedding down with Jaime. The plot, though, is moved forward by Frank popping into her head now and then just long enough to motivate Claire to instigate some stupid, selfish action that puts everyone around her – especially Jaime – in mortal danger. The sexy times in Outlander aren’t enough to compensate for the never-ending clown car of tragedies which comprise the whole series. There’s no balance between positive and negative. It’s just one shitty, preventable thing happening after another. And then the lock ness monster appears only to Claire and she pets him or something because…. feminism.? Who knows.
Once Claire tumbles through the stones into the Eighteenth century the writing improved. Not by Nabokov or Borges standards, but better than 8th grade English. Still, unnecessary problems and convenient resolutions are so prevalent that it takes me out of the story. After Claire gets herself captured and taken prisoner by Black Jack, the mustache-twirling villain, Jaime comes to rescue her with only an unloaded gun and his bare hands, as you do. This is the man who has previously flogged Jaime nearly to death and put a price on his head, causing him to forsake his castle and family to become a wandering mercenary. He is Jaime’s number one enemy in the whole wide universe. Jaime and his Highland pals have just finished teaching Claire how to wield a dirk, which she has hidden under her skirt. But she doesn’t think about reaching for it the whole time she and Black Jack are exchanging cagey banter all alone in his room. Then she misses her chance completely when Black Jack binds her wrists behind her back with some rope the boy scouts left in his desk.
Which brings me to the scene felt around the world: According to clan custom, Jaime must spank Claire for being stupid and annoying and almost getting them all killed again. Also because he likes it. My hormones like Jaime and feel sorry for his constant suffering, but this is tempered with knowing he’s dumb enough to put up with Claire. The hate mail about Jaime giving her a spanking, when he nearly died for her and because of her – more than once – is a bit ridiculous. As far as spanking wives and other women go, Diana Gabaldon and her show producers didn’t invent the concept. So calm down, Outlander fan mobs. If it’s good enough for Lucille Ball it’s good enough for you. It just seems like an odd place to draw the line in a bodice ripper. He didn’t punch her in the face or hunt her down with a crow bar. I thought it was very sensible the way he explained to her why it needed to happen, like a Scottish Ward Cleaver. Everyone knows when Jaime Fraser snaps his belt in his big hands and tells you in his fine Scottish brogue to get down to the edge of the bed and present to him your bare bottom – the correct answer, Claire, is yes, daddy.
People pay for that. Granted, those are consensual transactions and granted, this was with an 18th-century belt. God help the trigger prone if they ever come across a Rosemary Rogers book, which is what passed for sex education when I was in Catholic school. Actually, there are several similarities between Outlander and Sweet Savage Love. Everyone gets raped; that’s a given. The heroes both get tortured and raped in prison but Roger’s version blessedly only conveys this in a few vague sentences. The heroes are otherwise polar opposites. ( By the way, I recommend the comments for SSL in Goodreads. Worth your time. ) Both heroines are irritating and self-absorbed. Both couples involve themselves around the globe in historical wars for no logical reason which causes them to get separated for a stupid length of time. ( Jamie and Claire are together for 2 years, then separated for 20. ) Spanking isn’t the problem in this universe. It’s just that like everything else in the books and nearly identical television series, nuance hasn’t been invented yet. I’m more upset over the gratuitous horror show that was Jaime’s torture by Black Jack in prison, which I could not bear to see depicted. I’m not saying non-consensual spanking should be a regular part of a relationship, but I am saying I don’t feel sorry for Claire, and I would let Jaime spank me. I definitely would have gone along with the sex he insisted on as soon as Claire unhinged her face a little. I think this is what some people are calling spousal rape. I looked for it in the book when I read the brouhaha but all I saw was Jaime feeling empowered to change-up his usual doormat approach to Claire by letting out his inner Scottish daddy dom. He informed her one night that the sex was going to happen and he was not going to be gentle about it. But he also asked her first if she would accept that and she said yes. At any rate, subsequent moments showed her very accepting of it. I’m willing to acknowledge that due to the skimming, I may have missed something.
When the dialogue is good, it’s usually spoken by Jaime. Sometimes it’s over the top, but that’s hardly a bone of contention at this point. Whether he’s wooing Claire with sweet Gaelic poetry or explaining how she will call him master, Sam Heughan’s accent gets me right in the petticoats. Shortly after their forced wedding and less forced consummation of same, Claire asks Jaime if he isn’t worried she might kill him. He nonchalantly tosses her his sword, bares his chest and tells her he will die a happy man. Tell me you wouldn’t let that man spank you. You are lying.
The sex scenes are erotic but just shy of convincing, Every time I watched them I thought so. They both seem uncomfortably disinterested. But maybe I only get that impression because Clair is such a selfish bitch. Desire sounds like consumption and she arrives faster than a virgin boy on prom night. Yes, there’s some chemistry, but always with the hint of contrivance. Compare this to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover, in which to this day people will try to claim the sex was real. I’m not blaming everything on the girl but I like Sam Heughan in his character better than she in hers. I’m not insulting anyone’s acting, but I respectfully point out that if you are going to make a bodice ripper, these things are important.
There is a sick fetish for excessive violence. I’m talking about the infamous prison scene that scarred me without actually watching it. It’s torture porn and the writing is not strong enough to support the concept. Roxane Gay mentions that the violence is “unwatchable, as it should be.” But then why is it necessary to show it? This much grotesque depravity in savage detail doesn’t add anything of value to the story. With nothing left to the imagination, we feel less terror, sadness, and empathy than we should. It becomes desensitizing and that should never be allowed to happen for ethical as well as artistic reasons. Having insisted on it, if anything should have been compressed to a fade out it was that. Jaime’s rape and Jack’s fascination with him, minus the torture, could have been a compelling story line if anyone in this tale had been made into something more than a caricature.
Despite its flaws, Outlander enthralled me until I realized the recipe was made with only half the ingredients and reheating it every book and every week doesn’t make it taste better. I’d at least stay with the television show if true love had a chance to be happy for ten seconds, if Clair wasn’t such a cunt, and if things happened for reasons other than prolonging tragedy. Rape, kidnap, maim, imprison, repeat. It’s exhausting and the whole thing just goes on for too long. I did like this magnificent idea. If only it didn’t roar in like Jaime Fraser but then limp out like Frank Randall.
Here is a timeline if you want to try to make sense of it all.