Outlander Book Review: Time-Hopping Romance and Incredible Historical Detail

outlander diana gabaldon books bordeaux


Och, lassie! How could we not have a good time when we get a book AND a TV series with time travel and the time travel is to 1743 Scotland? And when you get there, you meet a Scottish man with model good looks, an outlaw pedigree, and a heart of gold. Oh, and he falls in love with you. And it’s really no problem that there’s no modern plumbing or dentistry! 😉

Jump to Outlander discussion question

Before we dive into this book, I have to gush about the food at this book club. Girls got crazy food game ’cause we pulled a couple of recipes from the Outlander Kitchen Cookbook, including a bacon tart and a bread pudding with bourbon sauce. We also had some memorable sweet and savory scones with homemade lemon curd. It’s okay, you can be jealous. 😉 Also, I recommend making a friend who will make you bacon tarts. 🙂

Amazing Historical Detail

With Outlander, Diana Gabaldon has crafted an uncommonly rich tale. Gabaldon writes believable, complex characters that are firmly grounded in their historical context. This is no small feat, especially because we experience two timelines in Outlander and both are equally vivid. Gabaldon’s research and attention to detail shine–in each setting we get a chance to learn something new about everyday living in 1743 Scotland. One of my favorite aspects of the book was getting to learn about all these old, archaic medical treatments and also their terms and understandings of different maladies in the 1700s. One of the most memorable scenes to me was when Claire is going through the previous healer’s supply of treatments:

I discarded jars of dried snails; OIL OF EARTHWORM—which appeared to be exactly that; VINUM MILLEPEDATUM—millipedes, these crushed to pieces and soaked in wine; POWDER OF EYGYPTIANE MUMMIE—an indeterminate-looking dust, whose origin I thought more likely a silty streambank than a pharaoh’s tomb; PIGEONS BLOOD, ant eggs, a number of dried toads painstakingly packed in moss, and HUMAN SKULL, POWDERED. Whose? I wondered.

Our Fearless Narrator

Claire is a narrator that you will enjoy for her strength in the face of so many challenges in her new environment. In fact, she is so self-assured and grounded by her skills as a combat nurse, it will leave you wondering—What the heck would I do to survive in 1743 Scotland?? When we had this discussion at our book club, we all noted (with a bit of jealousy) how our medically-trained member would be just fine. 😊

A small issue I found with Outlander is the tendency of the narrator to veer into pedantry—this is on rare occasion and is for the purpose of clarifying the historical context, but it comes close to making Claire an omniscient narrator. Sure, she could have found out that the “men-at-arms” and “cottars” were coming to camp outside the fortress for the “tynchal”, but it didn’t feel natural that she would be using those words in her own inner dialogue so quickly in this new time. The fact that Claire didn’t stumble over the vocabulary felt like a overstretch of Claire’s ability to assimilate.  Also, the romance storyline did not draw me in. And a lot of us (not all!) felt that way. Which is weird, considering the popularity and success of the romance in the show.

Did All Trauma Evens Inform the Story?

As a group, we had a debate about the amount of rape in the story. Was it necessary to the story? Was it realistic or did it detract from the story? Some of us felt that because Claire was an outsider in a new time and environment, she wouldn’t know how to blend in or where the women went when the men got out of control, so she would be in an unusual amount of unsafe (read: rape-y) situations. Did we need to read every one? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe that’s part of the story Gabaldon wants emphasize: the evolution of womens’ rights. In spite of Claire’s clear expertise and value as a medical professional, in 1743 her rights are restricted and her life and safety endangered because of her gender. And in her 1950’s timeline, she struggled to find meaning in her life once the war was over, because jobs were discouraged for married women.   

Still, for some of us, it just didn’t seem believable that Claire would be in that many rape encounters: it seemed more likely that Gabaldon included them to put her characters through trauma for a specific story-telling purpose: to demonstrate their strength, to characterize the villain, to illustrate a larger point about how men throughout history and through to present day seek to victimize women to keep them out of power, etc.

Opening Up the Conversation Regarding Male Rape

I was shocked when I read Jamie’s rape—only because I had never read a male rape in a story before, so it was completely unexpected. But why have I never read a book with male rape in the story? Certainly not because it never happens. It’s because we don’t talk about men being raped. There is a giant blank space in the world where there should be people speaking out about male rape.

We know most female survivors never report their experiences; among men, it’s even higher. 

Male Rape Survivors Suffer in Silence. We Need to Help Them Talk. Owen Jones, The Guardian

I am hopeful that by including male rape and Jamie’s path to healing in Outlander, Gabaldon will encourage people to talk about it in real life. No one should be made a victim, regardless of gender.

Finding Peace in the Midst of Chaos

My absolute favorite quote from Outlander is from a scene in the monastery when Claire is taking a turn watching their Blessed Sacrament on the altar (it must never be left alone, to make up for when Christ asked for company before his trial and crucifixion and his friends fell asleep instead). Father Anselm shares with her this bit of wisdom which I found extremely comforting, and still do:

But just then, for that fraction of time, it seems as though all things are possible. You can look across the limitations of your own life, and see that they are really nothing. In that moment when time stops, it is as though you know you could undertake any venture, complete it and come back to yourself, to find the world unchanged, and everything just as you left it a moment before. And it’s as though knowing that everything is possible, suddenly nothing is necessary.

Wine Selection & Tasting

Saint Amour Les Pierres 2015 Beaujolais Gamay. Scent of red currant and cranberry, suggestion of earth and stone. Flavor falls flat with single note of sour red fruit.

Outlander Discussion Questions

  1. Knowing that Captain Jack is related to Frank, does that change your opinion of Frank? In what ways? Do you think cruelty is in Frank’s ‘blood’? How much of a role does genealogy play in their characters?
  2. What do you make of the two family mottos: Lucero non Uro–I shine, not burn (MacKenzie) and Je Suis Prest–I am ready (Fraser). How do these mottos influence or reflect the characters and families to which the mottos belong?
  3. How does Clair’s role as a healer aid her through challenges adapting to her new environment? Have you thought about how you would have fared in Clair’s shoes? What skills would you have utilized—would your skills have translated as well as Clairs’?

However strange my circumstances, and however out of place I might be, it was somehow very comforting to realize that these were truly other people. […] It was immensely satisfying to be able once again to relieve a pain, reset a joint, repair damage. To take responsibility for the welfare of others made me feel less victimized by the whims of whatever impossible fate had brought me here, and I was grateful to Colum for suggesting it.

  1. After the skirmish at Cocknammon Rock, about which Claire warned the Scots of the imminent ambush, Jamie faints from his wounds. While Outlander already breaks convention with its genre-defying themes, its romance storyline breaks convention as well, starting with the hero fainting at the beginning or the story and the heroine coming to his rescue. In what other ways is Outlander an un-traditional romance? Does it in any way conform to a traditional romance?  
  2. Ancient remedies and medicinal healing practices are described in detail throughout Outlander. Did you find any ancient healing practices particularly interesting or upsetting? Have you heard of or used any of the remedies yourself?

I brought the vial up close to my face, wondering at its lightness. Then I saw the fine striations across each “pill” and the microscopic legs, folded into the central crease. I hastily set the vial down, wiping my hand on my apron, and made another entry in the mental list I had been compiling. For “slaters,” read “woodlice.

  1. Were you surprised when Geilie’s polio vaccine scar was revealed? Or had you picked up any subtle hints that Geilie was not from this time?
  2. On their wedding night, Jamie says, “There are things that I canna tell you, at least not yet. And I’ll ask nothing of ye that ye canna give me. But what I would ask of ye—when you do tell me something, let it be the truth. And I’ll promise ye the same. We have nothing now between us, save—respect, perhaps. And I think that respect has maybe room for secrets, but not for lies. Do ye agree?” Do you agree that a good marriage can have secrets?
  3. Is Diana Gabaldon a time traveler? Are there other time travelers among us? Why does Gabaldon put Clair’s revelation of the possibility of other time travelers at this point?

This sort of thing could have been going on as long the earth itself, I reflected. Even when it happened in front of witnesses, there would be no clues at all; nothing to tell what had happened, because the only person who knew would be gone. And as for the disappeared, they’d likely keep their mouths shut at the other end.