Review – Cross Stitch, by Diana Gabaldon
I’ve come late to the epic historical/fantasy/romance novels of Diana Gabaldon; after hearing a friend recommend the series for the last couple of years, I finally picked up the first book, Cross Stitch, last week.
For those that are unfamiliar with the Outlander saga (confusingly, the first book was published as Outlander in the US and Cross Stitch in the UK), the story follows Claire Randall, a British army nurse who takes a second honeymoon to Scotland after the end of World War Two. With her husband, Frank, she explores the area surrounding Inverness whilst researching their family tree, in particular an ancestor of his, ‘Black Jack’ Randall, a prominent 18th century army captain with a taste for sadism.
Interested in the history of the area, the couple visit the stone circle at Craigh na Dun, which has supposedly mythical properties. After witnessing a pagan ritual, Claire returns to the circle alone to collect a plant specimen. Whilst there she is overcome by a buzzing noise emanating from the stones and finds herself transported back in time to the 18th century where she is captured by a group of Scotsmen who believe her to be an English spy.
As the story progresses, Claire develops a tentative romance with beautiful outlaw Jamie Fraser.
Cross Stitch is certainly epic. The scope of the tale is huge, covering elements of Scotland’s history from witch trials to the Jacobite rebellion, as well as the idea of time travel. The novel features a huge cast of characters with intricate familial connections and intrigues. The romance between Claire and Jamie is also epic: complicated, passionate and dramatic in nature.
The time travel aspect adds an interesting ethical element to the plot, as Claire has a husband in the 1940s, but is forced to marry Jamie in the 1740s so that she is under the protection of his clan. Claire struggles with the moral implications of her bigamy, which is highlighted by her realisation that both marriages take place in the same small church. Her inner conflict only becomes more intense as her attraction to her young husband grows.
Claire and Jamie’s relationship is further complicated by her 20th century attitude to life and her place as a woman. Although she tries to conform to the ways of her new husband and his family, she is ultimately an independent woman, unused to obeying a man, who refuses to take the dangers of the earlier age seriously. This causes problems between them, culminating in a scene where Jamie is forced to beat Claire for being disobedient.
With his bravery, passion, warrior physique and fiery red hair, Jamie Fraser is an object of literary lust – I even included him in my recent list of book crushes. Whilst I can understand the appeal, the verdict is still out for me. During the initial days of their romance, Jamie is the ideal heroic lead. But it is the moment he chooses to strap Claire as a punishment that turned my opinion against him. The scene is a reflection of the times and the situation in which the couple find themselves, but no matter how contrite he might be later or how much the story can explain it away, I can never fully fall for a romantic hero who beats his woman; although by the end of the novel he has made amends for his actions.
At times the story is dark and violent, with witch trials, rape and torture commonplace. Some of the scenes are hard to read, yet the story is always compelling and full of action. I was caught up in the romance, the history and the betrayals, as well as the descriptions of everyday life in 18th century Scotland.
Cross Stitch is a guilty pleasure and I’ll definitely be heading to the library soon to borrow the next instalment in the series and see if Jamie Fraser can redeem himself completely and become a full on literary crush.