In the spring of 1945, Claire Beauchamp Randall is on holiday in the Scottish Highlands with her husband, Frank, trying to reconnect after a long separation during which they both served in World War II, he in the military and she as a nurse. While Frank indulges his interest in genealogy, Claire pursues her new hobby of botany. An elderly Scotsman offers to help Claire find some of the plants she is searching for, and on one of their excursions, he shows her a circle of standing stones on a remote hilltop. Claire and Frank return to the standing stones early one morning to secretly observe some of the local women engaging in a Druid ritual. While there Claire spots a flower she would like for her collection, but is unable to pick it at that time. She returns later by herself to collect the flower, and further explore the standing stones at Frank's request. When Claire lays her hand on one of the stones, she hears an unearthly scream and suddenly feels quite dizzy and strange.
When Claire finally returns to some semblance of normalcy and decides it is time to go home, she hears what sounds like a small battle and spots a group of red-coated soldiers and men in kilts on horses below. Thinking that she has just walked into the middle of a historical reenactment or movie filming, she tries to avoid the men and find the way back to her car, only to be attacked in the woods by a Redcoat who greatly resembles her husband. When the man claims to be Jack Randall, Frank's six-times great-grandfather, Claire thinks she's loosing her mind. Jack Randall seems to be of no mind to let her go though, and just as he is making his ill-intentions toward her quite clear, he is knocked unconscious by a small wild-looking man in a kilt who drags Claire away. She is grateful for the rescue, but still quite confused and frightened and finding it difficult to keep quiet, so the little man knocks her out as well. She regains consciousness near nightfall outside a small stone cottage.
Claire is taken inside the cottage where she meets a ragtag band of kilted Highlanders and their leader Dougal MacKenzie. Dougal decides that since danger is lurking, they must leave the cottage soon, and Claire will go with them. The only problem is an injured man, who up until now had gone unnoticed by Claire in a corner of the cottage. When she sees some of the other men trying to improperly set his dislocated shoulder, the nurse in Claire simply can't allow them to continue. She takes over the task and deftly sets the shoulder and dresses his gunshot wound. Claire discovers that the young man's name is Jamie, and when they leave the cottage, it is decided that she will ride with him just in case he needs assistance. Jamie behaves as a perfect gentleman, and Claire is surprised to discover that she finds his presence to be comforting. A few more adventures ensue as they make their way to the castle of Dougal's brother, and by the time they arrive, Claire is beginning to accept the unlikely scenario that she has somehow traveled back in time to the 18th century.
Once at the castle, Claire slowly works on formulating a plan to return to her own time, while finding ways to fit in by doing things such as tending the herb gardens and using her medical knowledge to help the sick and injured. She continues to tend Jamie's wounds almost daily, and they gradually build a friendship based on mutual respect and trust in each other. When Dougal is sent back out on the road to collect the estate rents, he takes Jamie and Claire with him, using Jamie against his will to incite his fellow clansmen to take part in a new Jacobite Uprising and intending to discover Claire's true identity. To this end, Dougal takes Claire to Jack Randall, but when it becomes clear that Randall intends to torture and imprison her, Dougal realizes that the only way to legally avoid turning her over to the officer is if she is turned into a Scot. The only way to accomplish this is by marrying her to one, and of course Jamie is the lucky lad. Marriage is just the beginning of Jamie and Claire's incredible journey together. It is one fraught with danger, political intrigue and betrayal as well as the wonder of love and romance all set against the backdrop of the beautiful Scottish Highlands.
I've read that Outlander was originally marketed as a romance novel because the publisher didn't know what else to do with it, but this book is no ordinary romance novel. It doesn't follow any typical romance formula and is a real genre bender that doesn't fit neatly into any one category. Outlander has a swoon-worthy hero and dozens of truly romantic scenes that should be sufficient to satisfy even the most discriminating romance reader, while it's time travel aspect and a few references to witches and fairies should be of interest to readers of fantasy and paranormal stories. At it's heart though Outlander is a historical novel rife with details of 18th century life in the Scottish Highlands both inside and outside a castle or large estate. It also recounts some of the events leading up to the Jacobite Pretender's Uprising of 1745. Diana Gabaldon is an amazing writer who delves deep into her character's lives and the history surrounding them, painting an extraordinary picture that truly transports the reader to another time and place.
Claire is an incredibly strong heroine, who can sometimes be a bit brash and sassy, but deep down she is a kind and caring person at heart. She adapts amazingly well to a new time and place, much better than most people ever would if faced with the dilemma she was. Claire is a very intelligent woman who uses every ounce of knowledge at her disposal to reverse her predicament, while helping others, especially with their medical needs, and bringing a much needed modern perspective to ancient methods. She somehow finds the courage to make difficult choices in an era when choices were sometimes few or non-existent, especially for women, and to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. Claire is stubborn and persistent even in the face of nearly impossible odds. Best of all she is a pillar of strength to her beloved Jamie as much as he is to her, and she has a powerful underlying passion that matches his own for her.
Jamie, in my opinion, is the best romantic hero ever to be penned by an author. He exhibits both physical and mental strength, as well as a strength of character, that go above and beyond any ordinary romantic hero. His word is his honor, and his commitment to that honor is moving beyond words. If only there were more men in reality who could be so easily trusted and taken at their word. Jamie shows a deep respect, not just for Claire, but for all the women with whom he comes in contact, a true gentleman in every sense of the word. On the outside, Jamie is tough as nails, enduring more physical pain than any one person should ever be expected to, while on the inside, he is kind, gentle and sensitive, often instinctively knowing things that others don't. He is thoroughly intelligent and well-educated and often beautifully poetic in his speech. He is lighthearted and self-deprecating, never taking himself too seriously. I loved the way he was always teasing Claire. Jamie is simply a wonderful character, a man who loves selflessly and with his whole being.
There is much to enjoy about this book. Together, Jamie and Claire make a formidable couple, and it is obvious from the outset that they are soulmates. Their absolute trust in each other, basically from the moment they meet, is in and of itself, romance at it's finest. There are no contrived misunderstandings between them, only naked honesty, which brings an openness and vulnerability to both characters that is breathtaking. I love the way the author creates a beautiful friendship between these two characters before they end up at the altar and of course then become lovers. What's even better though is how that friendship continues to blossom and grow deeper and deeper even after they are married. The intimacy level of these two characters is something I rarely see in a novel, and most of it has little or nothing to do with sexual interludes. During the times when Jamie and Claire were apart even for short periods of time, I simply couldn't wait for them to be reunited, as the two of them together absolutely electrify the pages. All the secondary characters are extremely well-crafted and surprisingly well fleshed out, even those who play only minor parts. The setting is beautifully rendered as well, almost becoming a character unto itself. The time travel aspect adds an extended element of intrigue, and Ms. Gabaldon has certainly taken the time to think through the ramifications of such a feat if it were indeed possible. Every scene simply adds to the richness of detail in the book, and there is nothing that I felt was excess. The author's care in seamlessly weaving all of the elements together is evident all throughout the book.
While there are many things to love about this story, there were a few events that bothered me just a bit. There was a scene in which Jamie beats Claire with his sword belt for disobedience. The scene in and of itself actually did not bother me much, because I fully understood his reasons for doing so and he later took a vow never to do it again. What did bother me was his admission that he enjoyed it. The admission was made in a fairly lighthearted manner. In light of that, I suppose it might have been meant as humorous, but perhaps it was too subtle for me to fully appreciate. Even so, I might not have thought much of it except for the fact that the villain in this story is a brutal sadist. For that reason, I found myself a bit annoyed at having the hero of the story exhibit even a hint of such a tendency. There were also a couple of scenes of what I would term rather intense and rough lovemaking, one of which began with Jamie behaving in a dominant manner, and neither of which were quite to my taste. They just seemed a bit out of character for Jamie, who up to this point, and following, was always a gentle and considerate though passionate lover. I will allow though for the fact that Jamie apologized for the first incident and admitted equality after the second. Finally, there was a scene in which Jamie related a prior incident with a secondary character in his youth, which by today's standards would have been nothing short of an act of child molestation against him, but which was treated rather casually by all involved. I wanted to reconcile this in a historical perspective, but as hard as I tried, I simply couldn't. I also feel compelled to warn sensitive readers that there is an incidence of brutal sexual violence near the end of the book. It is not played out in real-time, but instead is related a bit at a time through dialog and implication, but still is immensely palpable in the intensity of it's aftereffects on the psyche of the character who was the victim. I'm not usually overly squeamish about such things, but I have to admit to having some difficulty reading these passages. More than once, they brought tears to my eyes.
In spite of the things I have mentioned though, Outlander is still by far one of the best books I have ever read. I have to give Ms. Gabaldon extra points for all of her attention to details. It is a joy to read such an intelligently-written and meticulously-researched novel that is so rich in detail. It went far beyond my expectations for a debut novel for any author. It even sparked my interest in learning more about the time and place that is depicted in it. Outlander is the type of book that is so engrossing and compelling that it makes one want to read straight through without ever putting it down, though it's epic length makes that somewhat unfeasible. This was my second reading of the book, and it certainly won't be my last. It has earned a permanent place on my keeper shelf along with it's sequels Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross, and A Breath of Snow and Ashes all of which continue Jamie and Claire's story.
The Hope Chest Reviews on Facebook