Friday, June 24, 2011

Dragonflies Stuck In My Head

I believe that, for anyone who reads a lot, their are certain books that just implant themselves in your mind and heart. Books that, once read are never forgotten. Books that you find yourself thinking about and relating to years after you initially read them. For me, Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books (particularly the first trilogy) are like that. There is something so touching, so expansive, and so purely entertaining about Clair and Jamie Fraser's story that I simply can't get it out of my mind.
After finishing Outlander I immediately wrote a review detailing how surprised I was that I enjoyed such a weighty piece of historical fiction. It isn't just the romance, although for me that's certainly part of it. It's the adventure, violence, history, turmoil, and attention to detail that make it stand out. I said all of this, to anyone who would listen. But I never reviewed Dragonfly in Amber, though I certainly enjoyed it almost as much. The reason for this is simple. Dragonfly in Amber makes me sad. I think that when I finished it the first time I was way too emotional to write about it objectively.

For this reread, I actually decided to listen to the audible edition . There's nothing like being read to, and since I am familiar with the story, it's alright for me to multitask a bit--cooking, doing laundry, shelving books at work--without fear of missing anything.

OBLIGATORY SPOILER WARNING: The book starts out with Clair, twenty odd years after the end of Outlander, in the 1960s in Scotland with her daughter Brianna. Clair's purpose in traveling to Scotland is twofold: she wants to explain to Brianna the truth about her father and tell the story of her long ago adventures in time travel, and she wants to find out what happened to the men she knew who fought at Culloden in 1745. My initial thought was, why tell the story this way? Why would Gabaldon show her hand so early, letting her readers know right off the bat that 1) Clair and Jamie were unable to prevent the Scottish rising, as was their stated intent at the end of Outlander, and 2) Clair ultimately ends up leaving Jamie and returning to her own time, thus obliterating whatever happily ever after they appeared to have at the end of Outlander. Why tell the end of the story first? I guess it's because in this case suspense is not the point. Tragedy is the point.

Clair tells her story to Brianna and Roger (a historian), beginning with a journey to France. There Jamie attempts to befriend Charles Stuart and prevent him from starting the Scottish rising. Although we already know the basic outcome of this, the story remains entertaining because of the strong voice that Claire presents as a narrator. Her varied and interesting life is at times amusing, and of course at other times heart breaking. Eventually we follow Claire and Jamie back to Scotland, to war, and to their goodbye.

The characters are the soul of the story, and much could be said about them. I was already attached to Claire and Jamie, and certainly they go through a lot in this book. They develop as individuals and as a couple. But I was particularly intrigued by Brianna, due to the strange circumstances of her origins and her upbringing. The focus of this book isn't on her, only delivering hints of her personality, but I enjoyed her presence all the same. Roger's presence in the story is equally interesting.

The biggest drawback of these books, for me at least, it the length. You have to be willing to invest a lot of time, and the plot doesn't exactly move at lightning speed. Yet there isn't too much wasted space. The details, even those that seem irrelevant, add to the richness of the story. As much as I enjoy all of that detail though, it took me three weeks to get through this book the first time, and only slightly less time to get through it again.

I had forgotten that the book ends on something of a cliffhanger, though a positive one. One of the things I loved about Outlander was that it ended with a sense of cautious hope for the future, rather than a sugary sweet happily ever after. This book does much the same thing, delivering a solid ending with a strong hint of more to come.

This book will always stand out to me as the book that made me cry the most. While I tend to get weepy at books, I rarely launch into full sobbing, but I did with this book. Any book that can draw you in that deeply is an undeniable success. 5 stars.

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