Readers, I have a confession to make. I have been showing off for you.
Over the past three years I have become a fairly eclectic reader. I used to read novels, plays, and short story collections only, with the occasional lightweight memoir or self-help book thrown in when I felt like slumming. But recently I’ve been dabbling in history, serious biographies, and (slowly, very slowly) in the history of science and technology. But I still love my novels, and the novels I read vary widely in quality. Both Jill and I are well educated and know good literature when we see it, and we each have our stylistic and grammatical pet peeves and enjoy a good semicolon-induced temper tantrum now and then, but we are also both happy to admit that we enjoy reading schlock from time to time. Reading for me has always been both a challenge and an escape – hence the wide range in quality that tends to pop up on my book list. One of my goals for this blog was to review as wide a range of books as possible – from classical epics to current NYT bestsellers.
But then something started to happen. I found myself (gulp) trying to impress you. Which wasn’t my goal at all. In my defense, I’ll say that it’s easier to review a book that is complex and intellectual and textured than it is to review a work of escape fiction, and it is true that I’ve found myself choosing to read books that I thought would inspire good reviews (and I don’t mind that), but the fact remains – I have been showing off.
But those days are over. Because last week I decided to dive back in to Lake Gabaldon. (Brief aside: when Jill and I were in high school, we were taken on a field trip to a mental hospital, and during a bus tour of the grounds of this mental hospital we were told that a lake we were passing was 90 feet deep. All day long, we kept coming back to that fact – was that lake really 90 feet deep? That’s really deep! It didn’t look 90 feet deep from the surface! And that’s what I think of when I imagine Diana Gabaldon’s novels as a lake: they’re so deep that you can get lost down there. And they’re right in the middle of a mental hospital.)
The general premise of Gabaldon’s Outlander series (of which Drums of Autumn is the fourth in a series of seven extant and eight planned novels, each anywhere from 900-1500 pages in length) is that Claire Randall – a British war nurse in the years just following World War II – stumbles upon a magic stone circle in Scotland that projects her two hundred years back in time, where she meets Jamie Fraser, a young, hot-headed Scottish Highlander with a classical education, combat training, a physique that is chronically irresistible to both women and gay men, a laughably overdone Scottish accent, and a tendency to follow his personal and political loyalties until they lead him into deep trouble.
I mean it about the accent, by the way. If you read these novels, you will hear more than you ever wanted to hear about bonnie wee lassies and that sort of thing. Including during the sex scenes.
I’ll spare you the details of how Claire and Jamie end up married and in love, in that order – but trust me, they’re pretty compelling. Over the next three years (and two novels), they travel back and forth between Scotland and France, hobnobbing with royalty, running various business deals – both legitimate and shady – picking up a foster son, enduring a variety of physical assaults and near-misses, grieving a stillborn child, fighting a war, and attempting to use Claire’s knowledge of future events to prevent the Jacobite rising of Charles Stuart from ending in the massive bloodbath that prompted the British crown to break up the Scottish clans and criminalize any behavior that expressed Scottish pride or patriotism (those old Saturday Night Live sketches – “If it’s not Scottish, it’s CRAP!” – start to make a lot more sense when one has read these novels). Oh, and they also have sex. Lots of sex. And every 500 pages or so someone gets whipped. And Claire teaches Jamie about germs (or ‘wee beasties,’ as he calls them).
At the end of the second novel, Claire is pregnant with the couple’s second child, and Jamie insists that she travel back to her own time in order to protect herself and the child from the war that is about to break out. Twenty years pass (told in intermittent flashbacks throughout Voyager, the third novel and so far my favorite in the series) in which Claire is reunited with her previous husband, moves to the United States with him, raises their daughter, attends medical school and becomes a surgeon. Her marriage is distant and unsatisfactory, as her husband never believes her story about time travel and assumes that at best she was kidnapped, raped, and traumatized until she believed the fiction of having traveled in time or at worst she ran away, had a three-year affair, and persists in lying about it. When he dies, she discovers that Jamie likely survived the battle of Culloden and decides to tell her twenty year-old daughter the truth about her heritage and then to travel back through the stones and find Jamie. In the process, her daughter meets a young historian who helps Claire research Jamie’s life after Culloden, and a romance begins to bubble up between the two of them. Among (many) other things, Voyager features Claire and Jamie running a print shop in Edinburgh, crossing the Atlantic, spending time in Jamaica and Haiti, and surviving a shipwreck (or possibly more than one shipwreck? I can’t remember).
In Drums of Autumn, Claire and Jamie are settled in the colony of North Carolina with Jamie’s nephew Ian, their foster son Fergus, a friend named Duncan from Jamie’s prison years, and a variety of other characters who pop up from time to time (one cool thing about these novels: death is almost never permanent), including a drunken mountain man who bursts into a dinner party to demand that Claire operate on his hernia (which she does, right then and there, using her dinner companions as support staff and the brandy from the table to sterilize the man’s lice-ridden crotch). In this novel, Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna and her historian-lover Roger become more central characters as they – separately – travel through the stones into the eighteenth century and each survive a gauntlet of pirates, Indians, and rapists to arrive at Jamie and Claire’s door.
Now don’t get me wrong – you didn’t see me complaining as I holed up in bed for most of last week reading all 1070 pages of this saga. But overall I wasn’t too excited by this installment in the Outlander saga. I care about the characters – although in general I care about Claire and Jamie quite a bit more than I care about Brianna and Roger. Brianna looks like her father and bears his fiery, headstrong personality, but unlike Jamie, she is usually wrong. Fiery, headstrong characters are compelling when they are also smart, well-informed about their world, and competent; when they are simply self-righteous, as Brianna is, they are hard to endure. Jamie makes mistakes, but what makes him such a compelling and sympathetic character is how intelligent he is and how rapidly and accurately he synthesizes everything he knows about the world. Talk about code-shifting: in any given scene, he is equally likely to be found correcting his nephew’s Latin, teaching his wife to knit, speculating on the best way to extract a rattlesnake from a privy, quoting Shakespeare, learning Indian languages, correctly appraising the motives of various inscrutable criminals, defeating British military officers at chess, counseling rape victims, and using his wife’s knowledge of twentieth-century medicine to manage a measles epidemic. In the second novel, it is this quality that Claire most laments when she returns to her own century: He was always right!
I know from reading the backs of the next three books in the series that Jamie and Claire will soon become enmeshed in the American Revolution. I look forward to these, although I doubt I will read them soon – reading Gabaldon is an intense experience, and I need to catch my breath before I dive back into the 90-foot lake. But I’m a little wary too – the focus of the series seems as if it might be drifting away from Claire and Jamie and onto Brianna and Roger, and I have a feeling that I won’t enjoy the last four novels as much if this turns out to be the case.