Saturday, October 11, 2014

Outlander (the book)

I got interested in Outlander through the advertisements in Entertainment Weekly. I'm always interested in TV shows that are a little (or a lot) out of the ordinary. First, the pictures attracted me, and then I watched the free first episode on the Starz website. I was a little worried about the amount of sexual content the show would have, being on Starz, and my worry was warranted. When I finished the first episode, I had mixed feelings. I was undeniably curious about where the story was going, but I was put off a little by the sexual gratuity. I would have continued to watch more of the show anyway if I could have, but I don't have access to Starz on TV. So, the show was done for me, at least until DVD. But fortunately for me, it was based on a book, and I figured that was a better way to satisfy my curiosity anyway.

The attraction of the story lies in this: Claire is a war nurse from 1945 who, while trying to reconnect with her husband on a trip to Scotland, finds herself transported through time to 1743. There, she becomes captive to a Scottish clan and is eventually forced to marry. It's certainly an interesting premise. But that's not all the story has going for it. Once I started to read, I was fascinated by the land and people that the author, Diana Gabaldon, describes so well. There's a wealth of detail in this book.

There's also an intriguing moral question. If a person is married, and happily so (though that doesn't affect the morality of the question), but finds herself two hundred years in the past with no knowledge of whether or not she will ever get back, is it right to get married again and essentially be married to two men at once, though in two different times? I'm not sure the book gives a satisfactory answer, though it is certainly addressed.

(SPOILERS ahead.) The shock value of this situation is not singular in this story. And I have mixed feelings about this, too. Gabaldon seems to rely on providing as much shock value as she can throughout the book. While this pulls the reader further into the story, I think it also hinders her story in two ways. First, the story seems a little less likely. (I mean, it was never that likely to begin with, but all the details do create a fairly believable world.) Second, the shock value often goes hand-in-hand with moral depravity. For instance, Claire encounters a predecessor of her 1945 husband in 1743. He looks nearly identical to her husband but ends up being the villain of the story. He attacks Claire, creating a link between her first husband's face and violence. He's a sexual sadist and gets pleasure particularly out of violating men, both body and spirit. All that seems a little over-the-top. Speaking of sadism, the one scene that almost stopped my reading was toward the middle of the book when Claire's new husband (1743) whips her with a belt. It's to punish her for nearly getting him and his men killed, but he gets some pleasure out of it, too. The book does a remarkable job of explaining the situation and relating the fallout of it (I did keep reading, after all), but it made me so mad. I won't spoil every instance of shock value for you, but these should give you an idea.

And unfortunately, on top of a lot of shock value, Gabaldon is at least as graphic as the one episode I saw of the TV show, though the TV show added details that weren't in the book. Now, I've never read Fifty Shades of Grey and don't plan to, and I'm not really comparing the two books, but I doubt Fifty Shades could be much more graphic. There are pages and pages of details about Claire and her 1743 husband's sexual explorations. Later in the book, there are details about the villain's homosexual sadism. Not much is left to the imagination. As far as the sex scenes involving Claire go, I was at least happy that she was married. Morally, that is acceptable. But is it morally acceptable for a person to read all that explicit sexual content? Perhaps there are people out there who can read it with impunity. Their consciences are whole, and they are unaffected by what they read. I admit, I can't. And I think a lot of people who do read that stuff shouldn't. I think it hurts us, raises expectations that can't be met, causes us to long for a fantasy that isn't real. It's not harmless. Our culture says it's harmless, and we've become much more sexually "free," or so we believe. We give our hearts and souls away for nothing. We are lose everything. And through books like these, we numb our consciences until we believe the lie.

Soap. Box. Sorry. But it needed to be said.

Outlander begins an eight-book (eight major books so far, but there are also extra related books) series. The first book was published in 1991, and the latest book was published this year. So, there's quite a lot of content. But as interesting as some of the details about Scotland and the livelihood of people from the 18th century are, I think I am already done with this series. Perhaps it's just that these are very long books, and it took me awhile to get through Outlander, and I'm ready for something else right now. But also, I think I need to be careful about searing my conscience with images that are meant to shock and entice. From what I know of the latest book, I don't think that aspect of Gabaldon's books goes away. I do know the series continues on years into Claire's future (in the past), and I'm sure there's a lot of great stuff in there. But for now, it's not for me.

I give it three out of five stars.

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