Careful, now. The electronic version of Outlander doesn’t bear a warning label, but it should. It would say something like, “Reading this book may cause complete absorption in an imaginary world. Side effects could include missing deadlines, neglecting children, skipping meetings, excessive daydreaming and faint dissatisfaction with real life.” I could print a bunch of labels with this warning and go slap them onto copies in the nearest book store, just so the readers of America might get through the holidays with a modicum of efficiency. But I suspect the Starz mini-series has probably gotten everyone all excited about time travel and handsome kilted redheads, and my warning would go unheeded.
Here’s the thing about Outlander: it’s so much better than you might think. I’ve missed out on Diana Gabaldon’s books largely, I think, because book stores and Amazon have classed them as romance novels. Which they are, in part. The central relationship in Outlander is between the plucky sardonic Claire Beauchamp and the glamorous Scot Jamie Fraser. Of course the crucial element to any romance novel is the force that’s going to prevent the interesting couple from uniting, or that will tear them apart. Gabaldon’s got a doozy: Claire is a 20th century person, while Jamie lives 200 years earlier. Claire gets catapulted backward in time when she visits a ring of standing stones near Inverness just after World War II. It’s a great device, because everything we’d want to know about Highland Scotland in that period is as strange to her as it is to us, so the usual historical-novel exposition is presented as Claire’s discovery. What’s more there are plenty of other sources of conflict. The adorable Jamie is a wanted man, outlawed by the English who rule Scotland. He’s made an enemy of a sadistic English army officer, Jonathan Randall, who is not only the ancestor but also the very image of Claire’s 20th century husband. So adventures ensue. Cue galloping through the heather, cold castles, endless violence and lots of sex. Some of it in the heather, some in the cold castles. Claire gets herself in trouble, Jamie rescues her; Jamie gets himself in trouble, Claire rescues him. And always, the gulf of 200 years between them looms. But that’s a reductive way to talk about Outlander, because Gabaldon writes with energy, elegance, and a sense of humor (not a standard component in escape literature). In fact at times, Outlander reminded me of my personal historical-fiction benchmark, the Lymond novels of Dorothy Dunnett. Not just for the Scottish component, but because Outlander, like the Dunnett books, lets you live vicariously at a high pitch of drama. So when you put the book down, you look around somewhat befuddled. In fact, you’ve time-traveled. Nice trick, Ms. Gabaldon!