Divided Loyalty on a Sumptuous Romance

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Gabaldon, Diana. (2014). Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. London : Orion Books. 864 pgs. [8th in the Outlander series]

The latest installment of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander saga continues the story of Jamie and Claire, a Highlander and a time-travelling doctor respectively, and of their extended families as the American Revolutionary War rages. Gabaldon manages to balance romance and warfare in such manner as to immerse the reader fully into the world of late eighteenth-century America and she bringing new perspectives to the traditional Revolutionary War narrative. Also heavily featured are Jamie and Claire’s daughter, Brianna – trying to protect her family in 1980s Scotland – and son-in-law, Roger, who finds himself so far back in the past than one wrong move could negate his wife’s very existence. Recommended for lovers of historical fiction and romance. Familiarity with the series is not necessary due to Gabaldon’s frequent use of flashbacks and repetition, but having read the previous installments of the Outlander series is an asset.

Longer Review:

There is no doubt that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is a work of literature. She incorporates multiple genres into her work, does diligent and exhaustive research, and develops multi-faceted and relatable characters. Were it not for the heavy romantic elements, Gabaldon’s work would likely receive greater praise and recognition. It remains to be seen whether the new television series based on the first book will create more enthusiasm for the novels, or whether the historical elements will be sacrificed on the altar of fantasy, violence, and sex.

Unfortunately, the sumptuous romance overwhelms most of the narrative, particularly for our main protagonists. When they are apart, Claire and Jamie seem to dwell mostly on how much they miss each other; when they are together, it is all they can do to keep their hands off of each other. I get it – they are deeply in love (and lust, but in the good sense – that of desiring one’s spouse physically). They have a very physical and earthy marriage. I quite enjoy seeing a positive portrayal of an older couple in this way. However, it was overly repetitive in a book that was over 800 pages long. If the romance was contained only to Jamie and Claire, the repetitiveness would have been welcome respite from a novel about battles, protecting one’s children, and preserving the historical timeline – but the romance also extended to multiple other couples, all of whom shared this same earthiness and whining. I did not feel that there was much difference in the various couples’ relationships. However, I admit that by now, Gabaldon is writing for her fans, and her fans love Jamie and Claire, so in order for her new couples to be as well-loved, their relationships have to mirror Jamie and Claire’s. Gabaldon knows what her readers want. The romance is sexy, humourous, and thoroughly enjoyable, but very repetitive.

Also, I cannot help but think that the pacing of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood was slightly off. Brianna and Roger’s storylines seems smothered in the middle of the main narrative and do not flow well. Really, their story in this and the previous novel (An Echo in the Bone) could have been its own book in the series. By the time we encounter them in this installment, we are so invested in the Revolutionary War that their story seems like an interesting interruption that goes on for far too long.

What I really did like about this book is its honest portrayal of the conflict of the American Revolutionary War. There were many layers and sides to this conflict, much to the chagrin of propagandists. Frequently in literature, Loyalists are portrayed as foppish, wealthy aristocrats who were against independence because it interfered with their own power. Gabaldon does everything to portray them as honest folk, even as she wants us to believe that they were wrong. Several scenes are particularly poignant, one of which includes Loyalists being loaded onto a ship and having the soldiers tell the refugees that they have to leave their belongings behind. These people fled their homes with little more than their clothes and packed their favourite possessions – as we all would have done in that situation – and are then being told that they cannot take them. While we can tsk-tsk the folks with their china tea-sets and cuckoo clocks, it is much harder to do so at the middle-aged widow with her dogs. Dogs – living creatures! Why wouldn’t she want to take them with her?

The second such poignant scene is a reflection by Loyalist soldier William, who notes that a modest upper middle-class family is carting along their household furnishings into the unknown: this was a strong, happy family home and a symbol of prosperity and stability, now reduced to a broken cart carrying a hodgepodge of possessions and a very fancy clock (prized due to its connection with Europe). These people are being driven out of their homes and communities for not supporting American independence, or for being suspected of not supporting independence, or for merely formerly occupying an office connected to the British Crown.

Overall, this was a great read. The joy of this series is being able to reread it due to having missed parts before because of the sheer volume of it. It is also helpful that Gabaldon uses lots of flashback and references episodes from previous books with so much detail that readers who have not read every book in order (or those who have forgotten details from earlier books, since it has been a while since they were published) can still understand and enjoy the story. The characters are relatable, fun, and complex; the setting is detailed; and the plot is compelling and unpredictable.

Expect a lot of moaning of all kinds!

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