Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why are these books so addictive?

[I posted these comments on Compuserve this morning, in response to a first-time (male) reader of OUTLANDER who asked "why this series has such a following".  After I wrote all this down, I thought the readers of my blog might also find my reactions interesting.  Feel free to add your own thoughts and reactions, too, of course.]

First of all, I should note that I am not, and never have been, a reader of romance novels.  I am one of those readers who "wouldn't be caught dead in the Romance section of a bookstore". <g>  Nothing wrong with romance as a genre, of course -- and no offense meant to Jo and Eve and other romance writers here on the forum -- but it's just not the type of story that appeals to me all that much as a reader.  If OUTLANDER had had a romance-novel-type cover, featuring a barechested Fabio-type and a swooning female, I can assure you I would never have picked it up in a million years.

I read OUTLANDER the first time, in 2006, because I'm a longtime fan of both time-travel stories and Big Fat Historical Novels.  The idea of a time-travel story set in 18th century Scotland (a place and a historical period that I knew nothing about) intrigued me.  I had no idea, on the first reading, that the relationship between Claire and Jamie would become the main focus of that book.  In fact, on my first reading of OUTLANDER, I paid relatively little attention to Jamie in the first part of the book <wry g>, and I was reading so fast the first time (eager to find out what happened next, to Claire) that it didn't occur to me that Jamie and Claire were going to be together until just before the wedding.  That sounds ridiculous in retrospect, but it's true.

OK, so what was it about OUTLANDER (and the other books in the series) that got me hooked?

1) The characters. 

The people in these books are very human, and the way they react (in any number of situations) is both realistic and true to their personalities.  They have vices and faults and flaws, and I think those imperfections are what make them seem like real people.  Yes, Jamie is larger-than-life, but he also has his share of flaws.  He makes mistakes, sometimes with devastating consequences.  (Beating up Ronnie MacNab, for example, which led directly to Ronnie betraying him to the Watch, which led eventually to Wentworth and everything that happened there.)  And Claire's unfamiliarity with the culture and customs of the 18th century gets her into trouble on multiple occasions in OUTLANDER, as well as in some of the later books. 

And because these characters are portrayed so realistically, many of us have come to think of them as real people, and to react to what happens to them as though it were happening to a close friend or family member.  You laugh and cry with these characters, you're afraid for them when they're in danger, and so on.  I'm not a person who normally cries over fictional characters, but on my first reading of the series, when I found myself crying through the last part of OUTLANDER, and again at the end of DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, I was just stunned by the emotional power of Diana's writing, that it can make me react like that.  (To this day, I don't know how she does it.  I've heard her explain this, more than once, but I still marvel at the way she can cause such strong emotional reactions among her readers.)  This is another reason why I became so thoroughly addicted.

2) The conflicts.

I love watching the sparks fly when Jamie and Claire argue -- for example, during the infamous wife-beating scene.  Two very stubborn people, each absolutely convinced of the moral rightness of their own positions -- and both of them are right, in their own way.  They have to learn to make compromises, as any married couple does.

Some of the decisions Claire faces in OUTLANDER are just heart-wrenching.  Return home to Frank and leave Jamie forever?  Leave Jamie in Wentworth to die at the hands of Black Jack Randall, or find some way -- against impossible odds -- to get him out?  Maybe it's different, reading these parts of the book from a guy's perspective, I don't know. <g>  But I always have to ask myself, what would I do in those circumstances?

3) Diana's wonderful writing.

Diana's use of language in these books continually amazes me, even after multiple re-reads. <g> The lyrical descriptions, the humor (I don't think I would enjoy these books half as much without the occasional flashes of humor, both in dialogue and in the characters' thoughts), the use of obscure or unusual words, just for the fun of it <g> -- all of these things add immensely to my enjoyment of the series.  And the vast amount of detail in each book means that these are books that stand up incredibly well to re-reading.  You can't possibly pick up all the tiny details the first time through, no matter how slowly or how carefully you read.

4) Jamie and Claire's relationship.

I can't deny that Jamie and Claire's love for one another is the aspect of these books that appeals to me the most.  The idea of a love so powerful that it can outlast death itself is a very compelling one, at least to me.  No matter what happens, no matter what adventures they go through or what traumatic events they endure, Jamie and Claire's love for each other never wavers, and I don't think it ever will.  (That sounds mushy and romantic, and I don't intend it that way. <g>  It's just that there's no way to explain the appeal of their relationship to me without using words like that.)  Both of them have risked their lives to save the other.  Jamie was willing to sacrifice his life (literally) to save Claire's.  And Claire pulled Jamie back from the brink of death (and out of a severe depression) at the Abbey, using a combination of prayer, desperation, stubbornness, and sheer force of will.  Such absolute devotion to one another is something I've rarely seen in fiction, and to me, it's absolutely irresistible.

5) The sex.  Which is fun, no question about it <vbg>, and I enjoy those scenes as much as anyone else here, but IMHO it's a secondary aspect of Jamie and Claire's relationship.

9 comments:

JL said...

Since I often "read" as I work (quilter), I find that audio books suit me well. So, I must add that another reason to get hooked is the spectacular narration by Davina Porter. I have listened to a lot of audio books and she is unequivocally the best narrator I have come across.
Janet-Lee

Karen Henry said...

Janet-Lee:

Oh, definitely! I've been addicted to the unabridged OUTLANDER audiobooks for almost four years now. Davina Porter's readings are just wonderful, and I highly recommend them!

KAren

Sharon said...

I was recovering from shoulder surgery this summer, and when I was able to pick up a book, my dear friend gave me Outlander to read; I was horrified! She and I have shared books over the past 18 years or so, and she NEVER gave me a romance before! I, like Karen, am just not interested...(not that there's anything WRONG with romances...to quote a Seinfeld episode or 2!) Anyway, she assured me I would like the book, so I read it...in about 3 days! And then I asked: Where are the next ones? Over the space of 4 or 5 weeks, I read all the way to Echo...barely pausing for sleep. I, too, am hooked, largely due to the quality of the writing. The historical parts are usually right on, too, and the characters! Och, the characters!
Right there with you, Karen. I am so sorry I snubbed Outlander for so long before I jumped in. I am on my 3rd re-read, now, waiting along with everyone else for #8, and the new LJG book.
Sigh. Waiting verra patiently...

Cari said...

That's so funny - I also didn't see a Jamie/Claire connection in the early part of Outlander! I just thought of them as good friends, and I was wondering all that time what was going to happen with the Frank/Claire/Jack Randall "triangle". lol

Terry said...

Well said, Karen! My experience was a little different as I started with Dragonfly and raced to Breath. I thought I didn't have to read Outlander because I "knew everything" that had happened in the first book. A fellow fan on another message board told me I should read it and she was right!
BTW, I love romance novels, contemporary as well as historical, and that's the reason I picked up Dragonfly at a library sale. That $.50 purchase changed my life!

Esther said...

I started reading the series in 2006 also. I was at a library book sale and friend handed Outlander to me and said "I think you will enjoy this." That was an understatement. I have read them three times and Iam reading Brotherhood of Blade now.

Esther said...

I too started reading the series in 2006. A friend handed Outlander to me when I was at a library book sale. She told me that I would lke it and she was right. I read it 3 times and I am now reading the LJ books.

Debbie said...

I too love a big fat historical novel and also love books that involve the super natural (a big fan of Steven King). But I also like some romance novels. My favorite of all time being Wuthering Heights. I don't read the modern romance novels though, they generally don't appeal to me. BTW, Wuthering Heights is one of the very few novels I have read more than once besides the Outlander series. It seems Diana's books have a bit of all that I like in a novel.

Jessica said...

I have been in love with Outlander since I first picked it up to get me thorough a long plane flight. I only had about 9 dollars and needed reading material that would hold me for the entire flight. Best money I ever spent. I've read the entire series through twice and I am in the process of reading number three. I got my hands on an unabridged audio of Outlander at my local library, and have fallen in love with the story all over again, something about hearing it "performed" made the story that much richer, and I have picked up on subtleties that I missed when reading for myself as I tend to skim sections unintentionally in my excitement. Diana is my literary hero.