I received this book as a birthday gift, wrapped in brightly colored tissue paper presented with a flourish inside a beautiful little gift bag. The bearer of this gift is a coworker – a woman of sharp intellect and a keen eye for good literature. After I enthusiastically thanked her for her thoughtfulness (after all, what avid reader doesn’t appreciate a book as a gift – or at the very least, a gift card to Barnes & Noble), she told me that this particular book meant a lot to her; it had kick started her interest in all things Scottish. And knowing my inclination to admire anything associated with Great Britain, particularly novels set there, she thought I would appreciate the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Courtesies exchanged and volume in hand, I walked back to my desk and flipped the enormous paperback over. The sheer weight of the book might be intimidating to some; the lack of creative cover art to others. But when I read the description on the back cover of the book, I was quite certain that it was not going to appeal to me either. I’m not a fan of science fiction, nor do I especially like books about time travel. But in the interest of work place harmony, I decided the least I could do was start it. The option to put it down permanently would always be there. I started it at lunch that day. I finished it today, four days later. What happened in between is difficult to describe, but suffice it to say that the first word that came to mind as I closed the cover on page 850 was, “Wow.”
The story begins in a straightforward fashion. It is 1945, the end of the Second World War and Claire and Frank Randall, married eight years prior and separated soon after by service to Great Britain, are reunited and taking a much anticipated second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands. Claire spent the war years as an army nurse; tried and tested in field hospitals treating injured Allied soldiers. Frank, a teaching historian, served his country in the Intelligence Unit of the MI6, but now that the war is over, has accepted a position at Oxford. After their brief romantic sojourn, the couple intends to resume civilian life there. Or at least that’s the plan.
Their reunion seems to be going well and we are treated to a glimpse of their normal, if not boring, relationship. I like Frank. And I like Claire and Frank as a couple. I think you will too. But please don’t get too attached; their story together does not last long. There’s no violence, no untimely deaths, at least not yet. Not in relatively idyllic 1945 Scotland. But hold on folks, because the night is long and the ride is just beginning. This would be a good time for a drink.
As an amateur botanist, Claire decides to revisit a Stonehenge-like site just outside of the little village where they are staying. She approaches a particular stone cropping in an attempt to gather samples and, during her collecting efforts, touches a stone. Apparently this is not just any ordinary rock, because the result is immediate and “verra” strange. In dizzying fashion, we are carried along with Claire to Scotland of 1743. This is a very different Scotland from the one she has left behind, but Claire is still the same - a very modern woman dumped unexpectedly into a very primitive world. And although Claire is understandably confused, she is not necessarily frightened, and for this we like her all the more. Her battlefield experience is put almost immediately to the test as she meets her new and unsettling circumstances head on.
This was the proverbial fork in the road for me. Suffice it to say that I am not a big fan of Dr. Who. But I thought of us as readers and how, in a loose interpretation, we all become time travelers as we flip the pages. Besides, I told myself, it was possible that Claire merely fell and bumped her head, ala Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and might return to her former life sooner rather than later. So, in the interest of expanding a horizon or two, I convinced myself to put aside my prejudices. The truth of it is, after another few pages, I couldn’t even remember Claire's former life because what followed is absolutely magnificent in detail, challenging in scope and completely absorbing.
There is so much to give away here but I will not spoil the experience for you. I can tell you that we watch Claire struggle not only with her place in this strange world, but with her growing attraction to a young Scottish laird, James MacKenzie Fraser. Jamie is the quintessential hero. The relationship that develops between these characters is absolutely brilliant and, lucky us, we are allowed to watch it develop into an astonishing love story. There is a good deal of sexual chemistry, and while we are invited to witness the results on several occasions, the author is reserved in her descriptions, leaving us to use our imagination. This is very effective and I found myself spending more time than I should have at this pursuit - I have a very vivid imagination.
But while the centerpiece of the story is the relationship between Claire and Jamie, the swirl of events that takes place around them is perhaps even more exciting. I must warn you, the events in the book can be very disturbing. There are vivid accounts of the conditions during that time and Ms. Gabaldon does not hold back in painting an accurate picture of the sicknesses and injuries that were commonplace in a very primitive 1700’s Scotland. There is also torture and human cruelty, described with an unsettling clarity. There are a several scenes that are particularly unsettling and when you reach them, you will know. But don’t let this deter you from enjoying one of the best books I have read in a very long time. It is not easy leaving this book behind and I’m not yet ready to move on to the next in the series - I am still feeling the intensity of Outlander. But I will.
Some birthday presents are indeed priceless.