One tidbit you might not know about me is that my right shoulder has earned dozens of five-star ratings on AirBnB among the under-two set. It’s not something I’ve cultivated; it’s just one hell of a comfortable shoulder. My left shoulder, on the other hand, is an adequate substitute in a pinch – think of it as a Holiday Inn Express while my right shoulder is that hotel in Dubai where all the walls are aquariums. And like all prime real estate, my right shoulder tends to find itself booked up – sometimes for four hours a day or more.
I’m generally ambivalent about reading on a Kindle, but this device does make reading while my shoulder is occupied somewhat easier. With a Kindle, I can hold the device with my left hand and turn pages by a quick swipe of my thumb, allowing my right arm to stay immobile. Earlier this year I read all of Dave Eggers’ The Circle and Lily King’s Euphoria with a baby asleep on my shoulder, plus portions of other books as well. Right now I am trying very hard only to read one book at a time, so when I found myself with spare time when my shoulder was occupied a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t want to start a new novel on my Kindle when I had a physical book in progress. I needed something I could read quickly. So what better time, I decided, for a novella about the teenaged Jamie Fraser NOT having sex in France in 1735, in spite of spending an inordinate amount of time in brothels?
These Diana Gabaldon novellas have a tendency to be, um, a little low in, um, quality. The last one I read had zombies in it. I thought I might like Virgins a bit more since Lord John is not in it – and it’s true that the absence of Lord John is a strike in any novella’s favor. But the bottom line is that the only time Gabaldon truly writes well is when she uses Claire (Beauchamp Randall) Fraser as her narrator. Virgins is written entirely in third person. On the one hand, this is an advantage in that we don’t have to deal with the narration being in Scottish Highland dialect. On the other hand, in the absence of a first-person narrator, Gabaldon never seems entirely sure who has protagonist is.
This novella takes place just after Jamie is flogged for the second time by Jack Randall and then smuggled out of Scotland by his godfather, Murtagh. Jamie also just learned that his father died of apoplexy while watching the flogging, and he has reason to believe that Randall has raped his sister Jenny. Murtagh brings Jamie to a vaguely defined location in France, where Jamie’s friend Ian Murray is vaguely working as a mercenary among an odd collection of Frenchmen and Scots. The opening scenes are told from Ian’s point of view, and at first I welcomed his perspective, since he is never a point-of-view character in the Outlander novels. But Gabaldon’s use of point of view is wobbly, and soon we’re sneaking into Jamie’s perspective – I honestly don’t think Gabaldon could help herself – and at times it almost seems as if Claire is present, the action filtered through her perspective, even though she is not going to be born for another 180-ish years and won’t travel through the stones for another decade.
The plot involves a “Jewess” and some ancient Torah scrolls, plus prostitutes and some 18th-century techniques for staving off sepsis and a bunch of people saying things like “Ye look like ye’ve got a cocklebur stuck betwixt your hurdies.” Ian and Jamie discuss the idea that Ian might marry Jamie’s sister Jenny – whether or not she was raped by Jack Randall (she wasn’t, but they don’t know that yet) – and Jamie tells Ian that if he really intends to marry Jenny, he has to promise not to have sex with any of the endless parade of prostitutes they are about to encounter.
Somehow or other, these two teenage boys – one nursing festering wounds up and down his back, the other dull as dishwater (though also creepily obsessed with circumcision) – get put in charge of escorting the granddaughter of a wealthy Jewish man and her dowry to her future husband (the plots of Gabaldon’s novellas often involve revolve around escorting). I am not sure why this rather important task is assigned to two hapless Scottish teenagers, except possibly because they seem to be the only two people in all of France who are not virulently anti-Semitic. The woman, named Rebekah, has other plans for herself and manages to outwit her adolescent escorts and instead escort herself into the hands of the man she actually wants to marry. Jamie gets to show off his Hebrew (in between various pus-draining poultices), and Ian gets answers to some of his questions about circumcision, but not to others. And I think the priceless ancient Torah scrolls turn out okay, though to be honest I don’t remember.
I do want to point out one nicely-done moment in this novella. After a talk that veers back and forth between what it’s like to kill people and what it’s like to have sex (because what else would teenaged Highland mercenaries talk about), Ian asks Jamie some variation on “Well, you know, have you ever?” Jamie says something along the lines of “Have I ever what? Killed someone?”; Ian indicates that no, he was referring to sex, not murder. Jamie admits that no, he has never had sex – and he hasn’t killed anyone either. Ian admits his own inexperience in these areas as well. This is the moment that gives the novella its title. I really do like where Gabaldon went with this moment – with this establishment that in this milieu both killing and sex are comparable thresholds, so nearly equivalent concepts that they are discussed in similar shorthand. What happens next, of course, is that Jamie kills someone. He doesn’t commit cold-blooded murder, of course; he kills a man who is beating a prostitute so severely that Jamie has reason to think he might kill her. Gabaldon really does do a good job of structuring Jamie’s character arc here. He arrives in France near death himself from the wounds on his back and in despair over the death of his father. Displaying absolutely no sign of the so-called “missing piece of the adolescent brain” – and also prefiguring a moment later in the Outlander series, when Claire sums up Jamie’s character by saying “He was always, always right” – he manages to exercise appropriate caution when surrounded by dozen of French prostitutes while also taking the life of someone whose violent actions deserved to be stopped. And he possibly also saves some priceless ancient Torah scrolls. I honestly don’t remember. But it seems like the sort of thing he would do.