Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Elizabeth is Missing (Book Review)

Publication Information: HarperCollins hardcover, 2014
Genre: Contemporary fiction, set in England
Plot: Maud is an elderly woman losing her memory, devoted to her friend Elizabeth. Although confused by much of her daily life, she knows she hasn’t seen Elizabeth lately.  Convinced Elizabeth is missing, Maud is determined to find her.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Outlander – Season 1, Episode 1, Sassenach – Recap

As requested, I’ve gone back to the beginning of Outlander to recap the first episode.   For those who missed the 8-part series on Starz, it will probably be repeated in a marathon showing just before the second half of season 1 begins in April and is also going to be rerun on Christmas.  Outlander is based on Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling historical fiction series.  As I have told many people, as I left Bantam Doubleday Dell in May of 1991, I helped myself to two advance reading copies (arcs) from a pile on the 22nd floor that looked appealing.  One was The Firm by John Grisham and the other was Outlander.  I often think about how BDD (now Random House) launched two incredible franchise authors that year.
Episode 1 begins with a voiceover from Claire, the heroine of the series, describing how people disappear every day.  Most such disappearance can be explained, but not all.  (If you need an explanation for time travel, this is the wrong show/series for you.)
Our first, long-awaited glimpse of Claire Randall: she is looking at an ordinary vase in a shop window, contemplating the fact that she’s never had a sufficiently settled home to own that sort of bric-a-brac.   It is six months after WWII and we see a flashback of Claire in action as a combat nurse.  It is clear she performs well and decisively in crisis situations.  However, she is affected by the suffering she has seen and can’t simply relax and celebrate VE Day, reminding me of Vera Brittain after WWI (fans of Testament of Youth will be interested to hear there is a movie coming in 2015).   

Claire and her husband, Frank Randall, are on a second honeymoon in Scotland, trying to get to know each other again after five years apart doing war work.  While Claire was overseas, Frank worked in Intelligence in London.   He is a history professor, eager to discourse about his interests at the drop of a hat, which would normally be quite embarrassing in a husband but Claire smiles fondly at him every time.   They check into a bed and breakfast in Inverness where Claire bounces on the creaky bed in their bedroom as a joke, coaxing Frank to join her.  The innkeeper smiles indulgently when the ceiling light fixture shakes back and forth.

Claire was raised by an eccentric uncle who was an archeologist, so she grew up unconventionally at digs.  Her hobby is botany which keeps her busy while Frank pursues his interest in genealogy.  He is excited to visit a local point of interest, Castle Leoch, although only a ruin remains, because he knows his ancestor was in the area.  Claire seduces Frank in what’s left of the castle basement by revealing she is not wearing undergarments: I guess Claire really must be intrepid because the likelihood of vermin would have prevented me from entering the remains, and I would not have advised lingering for sexy time with Frank.  I suppose the producer is trying to show that there is chemistry between Frank and Claire, even if they don’t seem to have much in common.

Frank has a local acquaintance, Reverend Wakefield, who shares his love of Scottish lore.  Frank and Claire have been invited over to talk Jacobite history, and when Frank starts going on and on about his ancestor, Captain Jonathan Randall, again, Claire (indulgent but bored) is rescued by the housekeeper, who gives her tea in the kitchen and reads the tea leaves.  Claire jokes about the clichéd tall dark stranger usually promised in such fortunes but Mrs. Graham seems perplexed as she looks at Claire’s tea leaves and then at her hand.  She tells Claire her hand has a pattern she has never seen, that she is strong willed, passionate, and her marriage line is divided (which means two marriages) and forked.  Claire smiles but she is a bit weirded out.

Claire tells the men she is going to go back to the B&B and mentions she heard the barman call her Sassenach.  Reverend Wakefield says it means Englishman or Outlander, and she should not be offended.  Frank lingers at the vicarage and when he returns to the B&B, he sees a Scotsman in a kilt standing outside in the rain, watching Claire brush her hair through her window.  When he asks if he can help, the man disappears.  Frank is puzzled, and wonders if he had too much whisky at the vicarage (sounds like a book title).  He is also suspicious and shaken by the man’s seeming disappearance.  “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” says Claire.  He asks Claire if she nursed a lot of Scots during the war.  “Lots,” Claire says happily, until she realizes Frank is trying to imply something improper.  Frank says he thought the man must be a former patient come to reconnect with her, and that it wouldn’t be surprising if she had strayed while they were apart. Claire is furious that Frank thinks she was unfaithful (she obviously had chances but withstood temptation) to him.  Frank says it would make no difference: “I love you, and nothing you could ever do could stop my loving you.  Forgive me.” They make up passionately in bed but I am still offended on her behalf.  Claire’s voiceover observes that sex is their best way of communicating.   As Frank falls asleep, he tells Claire they are going to get up early to attend a pagan festival.  Good second honeymoon activity, right?

The festival is too dark to see but there are torches and pale faces moving about in strange patterns.  The vicar’s housekeeper, Mrs. Graham, is one of the participants.  At dawn, we see the standing stones, which Frank and Claire inspect with interest.  When one of the dancers returns to the stones, they retreat discreetly.

Claire decides to return the next morning in search of a blue flower she had noticed growing at the base of a standing stone, and leaves Frank asleep.  As she kneels by the stone, there is a strange roaring sound.  When she moves closer to the stone, she is snatched into complete darkness.  And here we go!

When Claire emerges from the darkness, she is still by the stones (and still wearing a very impractical white dress (a pity the Brits don’t celebrate Labor Day or perhaps she would have known better)).   As Claire points out, when confronted with the impossible the rational mind gropes for the logical.  Like all modern time travelers (say I knowledgeably), Claire wonders if she has wandered onto a movie set where a costume drama is being filmed.  She stumbles about in a bewildered way until she hears a gunshot and sees soldiers. CLUE!  Shocked, she loses her footing and rolls down the hill.   Fleeing from the live ammunition, she meanders through the woods where she comes upon an English soldier by a stream.  Stunned by the man’s resemblance to Frank, she stammers his name, but realizes right away he is not Frank.  “Who the bloody hell are you?” she demands.   He introduces himself as Jonathan Randall, Esquire, Captain of Dragoons, if you please.  Randall is the English commander of Fort William, with responsibility for keeping the local Scots in their place.    

Of course, Claire instantly recognizes the name as Frank’s ancestor, and instinctively tries to get away, saying her husband will be looking for her.   Suspicious, Randall pursues and easily captures her, demanding to know her husband’s name.   Realizing he will be even more suspicious if she says her name is Randall, she provides her maiden name of Beauchamp, but Randall is not mollified.  He suspects her of being a spy or a whore (which is worse?) and decides to rape her because he is that kind of guy.  This is the first of many sexual assaults on Claire.  

Luckily, in the nick of time, she is rescued by a mysterious stranger and carried away on his horse.   For all Claire knows, he could be equally as vile as Captain Randall but, in fact, her savior is Murtagh, part of a group of somewhat uncouth Highlanders who know and dislike Randall.  The men cackle at her skimpy clothing but their leader says they’ll deal with her later.   He is concerned about the condition of Jamie, one of his men.  Although wondering how to escape and knowing she should keep a low profile, Claire can’t help intervening when the men are about to apply some rough cure to young Jamie.   Recognizing that his shoulder is separated, she insists on popping it back into the joint herself.   Our long-awaited glimpse of Jamie is in the half-light of the fire but he looks appealing from the first, even in acute pain.   “Thank ‘ee,” he gasps.  Despite the practical nature of her assistance, there is opportunity for them to gaze into each other’s eyes and special music begins playing not-so-subtly.   Claire gives him sensible, nurse-like advice about his recovery, which Jamie will not have the luxury of following because they set forth on horseback at once.   First, however, Claire looks about and can’t see the lights of Inverness in the distance, but Jamie says she’s looking straight at Inverness.   That is when Claire realizes she is no longer in the 20th century, although she doesn't immediately know it is 1743.  The Highland chief threatens to kill her if she makes a sound and boosts her up in front of Jamie, who gallantly wraps his plaid around her, telling her they’ll be riding all night.

As dawn breaks, Claire recognizes a rock (cliff) that Frank had told her the English used for ambushes and tells Jamie.  Taking her seriously, Jamie passes along her warning to the chief. He is skeptical of her knowledge but doesn’t want to take any chances in case the English are waiting.   The men prepare for battle and Claire is dumped unceremoniously off Jamie’s horse.  She tries to escape through the woods although she has no idea where she is going but Jamie finds her after the fight.  He is covered with blood and looks very dangerous, although he says the blood isn’t his.  He drags Claire along with him saying, “Dougal and the others are waiting.”  When they rejoin the group, Dougal says he doesn’t know how she knew about the ambush, but the men are glad to have won the skirmish with the English and pass around a flask.   Jamie politely offers Claire the flask, saying it will help her forget she is hungry.   

They continue to ride through the night until Jamie collapses, falling off his horse.  Claire calls for help and tends to Jamie’s gunshot wound, asking the men for something to disinfect the wound.  “Disinfect? Germs? Iodine?” the men echo blankly.  In desperation, she asks for alcohol and they sigh with relief – finally, something they understand although they doubtless feel it’s a waste to pour it on Jamie’s wound.  Claire has picked up some expressive curses while nursing and the Scots are shocked by her outspokenness.   She tells Dougal that Jamie needs to rest but he says they must be off soon. “Thank you, Sassenach,” Jamie says, using the epithet for the first time.     Jamie explains that Captain Randall will be after them and Claire is surprised Jamie knows the English officer.  She gets back on the horse and as the sun comes up she sees Castle Leoch in its magnificence, not the ruin she saw in the 20th century with Frank. 

The episode ends with another voiceover from Claire, “So far I’ve been assaulted, threatened, kidnapped, and nearly raped.  And somehow I knew my journey had just begun.”

What’s Important About This Episode:

  • Catriona Balfe, the actress who won the part of Claire Randall, didn’t initially seem like my vision of Claire – she seemed too thin and not sufficiently sarcastic, but she grew on me as the season went on and now I am completely convinced she was the right choice.
  • The series is scored by a musician named Bear McCreary.  I had never heard of him but he apparently worked on Battlestar Galactica with producer Ron Moore.  The music was delightful and, for the most part, unobtrusive.  It is jazzy and mid-20th-sounding century when Claire is in the present or when there are flashbacks, but haunting and Celtic in the 18th century.
  • A lot happened in the first episode so there wasn’t much time to sit back and enjoy the scenery but it was amazing.  I watched Episode 1 again with my mother and yearned to visit Scotland (and Scotland's tourism board is eager to welcome us all).
  • I have reread the book many times since the first time more than 20 years ago and the adaptation is very faithful.  It is very exciting to see/hear it all come to life, and must be beyond amazing for Diana Gabaldon.
  • I wondered if those watching who hadn’t read the books expected Claire’s rescuer from Randall’s assault to be the hero instead of dour Murtagh.  It seemed as if we waited a long time into the episode for Jamie to appear but they packed a lot into one hour!  I can’t imagine anyone could have been dissatisfied with the first episode (except my brother who was startled by the explicit sex and said, “You let Mother read these books?”).
Images copyright to Starz

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Woman with a Gun (Book Review

Publication Information: Harper Collins, Hardcover, December 2014
Genre: Suspense
 Plot: This is a story within a story inspired by an unusual photograph of a woman in wedding dress approaching the ocean, holding a gun.  Stacey Kim is working as a receptionist at a law firm in New York to pay the bills while she nurses literary ambitions: 

"Stacey’s nonexistent social life and mind-numbing job would not have mattered if she was making progress on her novel, but she wasn’t . . . Each time Stacey stared at the blank page on her laptop she tried to rekindle the hope and excitement she had felt during her first days in New York, but all she felt was despair.
That was about to change."

Bored and frustrated, Stacey visits MOMA at lunch one day where she sees and is fascinated by this iconic photograph, learning that the subject, Megan Cahill, is suspected of killing her husband on their wedding night.  Stacey is convinced the photograph should be the basis of her novel, and impulsively quits her job and heads to the Oregon to interview as many of those involved in the investigation as possible, including the legal team and the photographer, Kathy Moran.

Audience:  Fans of suspense, thrillers.  I was trying to remember other books that have a photo as a focal point and temporarily cannot come up with any, although Robert Goddard’s Caught in the Light is about a photographer who becomes obsessed and Portraits in an Album is about a family photo album and its secrets.

What I liked: I had read and enjoyed some of Margolin’s more traditional legal thrillers about Dana Cutler, so was curious about this one.   After a slow start, I found it very unusual and entertaining.    I liked the character of Stacey and admired her determination to interview everyone involved in the original murder of Megan Cahill’s husband, and was pleased when she began to connect in a personal way with some of these individuals.   Margolin manages to pull all the storylines from the past and present together in a satisfying conclusion.

In another book of his I read recently, he mentioned having lost his wife.  I am glad he has kept writing and hope it has distracted him from his grief.

What I disliked: Some of the characters were so unpleasant I didn’t want to read about them, so I was on the fence until Stacey began to appeal to me.    While I think I prefer his more traditional thrillers, I admire an author willing to try something new.
Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours and I invite you to visit other stops on the blog tour listed below:   
Tuesday, December 2nd: The Steadfast Reader
Wednesday, December 3rd: Books in the Burbs
Thursday, December 4th: Under My Apple Tree
Friday, December 5th: BoundbyWords
Monday, December 8th: The Daily Dosage
Tuesday, December 9th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, December 10th: Kahakai Kitchen
Wednesday, December 10th: Great Minds Read Alike
Thursday, December 11th: Bibliotica
Friday, December 12th: FictionZeal
Monday, December 15th: Fuelled by Fiction
Tuesday, December 16th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Wednesday, December 17th: The Book Binder’s Daughter
Thursday, December 18th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Friday, December 19th: Reading in Black & White
Monday, December 22nd: Ace and Hoser Blook
Tuesday, December 23rd: Living in the Kitchen

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

You’re Welcome vs. No Problem

I am a serial thanker.  This may be partly because of my experience in service industries or due to innate courtesy.  When living in NYC, I always thanked bus drivers profusely, partly to be nice but also convinced that some day one would recognize me running to catch up and would wait for me.  Recently, I have noticed a disturbing phenomenon: the new default response to a thank you from the younger generation is “no problem.”   However, I do not consider that “no problem” is by any means an equivalent to “you’re welcome” or that it is appropriate in all situations.

When someone says “you’re welcome,” she is making an affirmative representation that providing service to you was, if not her privilege, something that gave her satisfaction.  The transaction is cemented by gracious thanks on your side and polite assurance on hers.

In contrast, when someone responds to thanks with a “no problem,” whether courteously or airily delivered, it implies that there was a problem or that he was not overly inconvenienced by the service provided.  “It was not a problem for me to assist you in this way” or “There is no need to thank me because it didn’t cause me a problem.”   Does that individual intend to communicate churlishness?  Probably not (although the service I receive from some would indicate otherwise) but why not send the thanker off feeling appreciated rather than grudgingly tolerated?  Otherwise, why acknowledge the thanks at all? 

Is this generational, mere informality or a real decline in manners?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Outlander – Season 1, Episode 8, Both Sides Now – Recap

This episode begins in 20th century Inverness showing Frank’s side of Claire’s disappearance.  I never cared that much about Frank’s suffering but Ron Moore, the producer of Outlander, decided to fill out that part of the story.  The police tell Frank that they have spent six weeks investigating Claire’s disappearance without results and they have concluded she is still alive, probably with the Highlander Frank saw lurking outside her window.   Frank is furious with their lack of effort and assumptions about Claire, and says emphatically that his wife is not with another man.   
Immediate cut away to Claire with her other man – her new husband, Jamie.  They appear to be picnicking on a scenic mountaintop and Jamie is asking her in a tone of mixed shyness and awe, “Is it usual, what it is between us, when I touch you, when you lie with me, is it always so between a man and a woman?” Claire replies gently that it is indeed unusual and different, but before we can enjoy this tender moment, they are interrupted by an arrow.  Thank goodness she is not about to be threatened with rape again, or at least not yet.  Instead, it is Jamie’s old friend Hugh Munro, who is mute due to long ago torture by the Turks but is able to communicate with Jamie.  Hugh gives Claire a piece of amber containing a dragonfly (title of future book alert!) and, more usefully, tells Jamie there is a Redcoat deserter, Horrocks, who might be able to help Jamie clear his name and remove the price from his head.

Frank’s only confidante in his distress is Reverend Wakefield, who has collected all the newspaper clippings and comes up with possible explanations for Claire’s disappearance.  We get our first glimpse of Roger, the reverend’s nephew, adopted when his parents were killed in the Blitz.     At a bar, drowning his sorrows, Frank is approached by a mysterious woman named Sally.  She promises information on the alleged Highlander if Frank meets her that night with the reward money.   I was sure Frank was going to get beat up but I guess his war work, despite being behind a desk, included some self defense because he takes them down easily.  Maybe he is channeling his evil ancestor.  Back at the vicarage, Reverend Wakefield advises Frank to move on with his life.  “You believe she left with the Highlander of her own volition?” Frank asks.  Quoting Sherlock Holmes, Reverend Wakefield says, “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Reverend Wakefield’s housekeeper, Mrs. Graham, insists on telling Frank that there is another explanation for Claire’s disappearance.  She tells him there are legends and songs about the standing stones of Craigh na Dun, about people traveling through time.  Mrs. Graham tells him she believes Claire has traveled to another time but according to legend, some of the travelers return.   Frank listens carefully but tells Mrs. Graham he doesn’t believe her.   He has packed to return to Oxford but on the way, he stops at Craigh na Dun to take a last look.

Back in the 18th century, Angus is instructing Claire in how to use a knife.  When Claire and Jamie sneak away from the MacKenzies for a little alone time, they are interrupted mid-thrust by two deserting English soldiers who grab Jamie.  One holds him at gunpoint while the other attempts to rape Claire.  Terrified, Claire waits for her moment and, aided by her recent lesson, pulls out her dirk and stabs her attacker (in the nick of time) while Jamie is able to pull free and kill the other soldier.  

Afterwards, Claire is in shock and angry at Jamie for failing to protect her.   However, she soon realizes she is primarily angry at herself for giving up her attempt to reach the standing stones and return to Frank.   When she realizes she is close to Craigh na Dun, she ignores Jamie’s request to stay put and rushes toward the stones.  This scene is the most beautifully filmed of the whole series – an unbelievably gorgeous setting and background scenery of hills and valley, with Claire rushing from one direction and century and Frank moving restlessly among the stones in his century, calling her name while he chokes back sobs and his voice reverberates back to the 18th century, causing Claire to speed up.   Somehow he also hears her voice as she calls, “Frank! Wait for me!” but just as she reaches for the stone that we believe would bring her back to the 20th century she is grabbed by Redcoats, and Frank is left alone among the stones and returns to his car.
It would have been tempting to end the episode there as this was a magnificent scene.  But another one is coming: the English soldiers bring Claire to Captain Randall at Fort William.   Captain Randall is still suspicious of Claire and wonders why Dougal was so eager to protect her.   He warns Claire that he will find out her secrets no wonder what it takes – and we all know Captain Randall loves torture and I don’t know about you but I do not want to witness any more of that.   Remembering a theory of Frank’s about Captain Randall, Claire says if he wants to know her secrets perhaps he should ask the Duke of Sandringham.   This ploy works beautifully at first; Claire almost convinces Captain Randall that they are both employed as spies by the Duke, and that the Duke would be annoyed if Claire’s mission is interrupted.   Then Claire oversteps her knowledge and Captain Randall realizes she was bluffing.  He ties her up and Claire screams for help.   Black Jack rips her bodice, waving a knife in her face, and is about to carve up her breast and rape her, laughing diabolically.

At that moment, Jamie appears at the window looking ferocious, and says, “I’ll thank you to take your hands off my wife.”   Captain Randall looks up, recognizes Jamie instantly from their previous encounters, and his laughter grows deeper and increases its maniacal edge.


What’s Important About This Episode:

·        Claire is in the middle of two important love triangles: the obvious one is Claire-Frank-Jamie but Frank and Jamie don’t know each other.   She is also caught in the relationship between Captain Randall and Jamie, which is characterized by weird fixation on Randall’s side and hatred on Jamie’s, not to mention Randall’s violent obsession with Claire (this is the second time he’s been about to rape her).  From Claire’s perspective, the relationship is complicated by Randall’s resemblance to Frank and her knowledge of his abuse to Jamie, Jenny and his known depredations in the Fort William area.

·        When Jamie appears at the window and reveals Claire is his wife, Captain Randall finally learns he is part of this triangle.  

·        Adding scenes and back story from Frank’s point of view is effective but also causes us to sympathize with him.  Fans of Jamie Fraser may prefer for Frank to stay out of the story.   There are way too many shots of Claire’s wedding rings in this episode.  Okay, we know she is torn.

·        I guess Diana doesn’t want the reader to romanticize the 18th century too much, so she shows the endless conflict and danger faced by the Highlanders.  Did she go a little overboard in this book with all the attacks on Claire? 

·        Roger Mackenzie Wakefield will grow up to be an important character in later books.

·        Two incredible scenes in this episode, sandwiched by Claire’s attempt to bluff Captain Randall (and that doesn't even include Claire's first kill).  How can we all wait until April 4, 2015 when Starz returns with the second half of Season One?  
Images copyright to Starz

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Sea Garden (Book Review)

Title: The Sea Garden
Author: Deborah Lawrenson
Publication Information: HarperCollins, hardcover, 2014
Genre: Fiction/Historical Fiction
Plot: This book consists of three interlocking novellas.  In the first story, set in 2013, Ellie Brooke, a landscape architect, has traveled to an island off the French coast to restore a long neglected garden. Her employer is an urbane older Frenchman with an eccentric elderly mother. Ellie’s visit has ominous overtones even before she reaches the decayed home of the de Fayols family, but she experiences the usual gothic intimidation once she arrives: hostility, a host who abandons her, mysterious strangers, her possessions rifled, and she becomes mysteriously dizzy.  Ellie’s narrative ends abruptly.

The second story appears unconnected.  Set during WWII, it is about a blind young Frenchwoman who works for a small family perfume business in Provence.  Slowly, Marthe becomes aware that her employers are involved in the Resistance and are sheltering English and American pilots and agents, later to be smuggled past the German soldiers to safety.  Can shy but appealing Marthe play a part in this dangerous undertaking?

The third and most appealing story, also set during WWII, is about Iris Nightingale, a young woman working for British intelligence in London.  Part of her job is preparing men and women to go undercover in Occupied France.  We see Iris gain in confidence as the war goes on and her responsibilities increase (although the condescension of the men she works for is infuriating); then she falls in love with a dashing French agent, and her life will never be the same.     

Audience: Fans of historical fiction and of “past-present” books; those interested in WWII.

What I liked:  Overall, this book was a good blend of suspense and enough romance to make it interesting.  At first, I had a hard time getting into it because the first novella, Ellie’s story, was very dark and seemingly disorganized, and left me wondering what I had missed.  However, Marthe’s narrative, although familiar to me from many books about occupied France (for example, Fair Stood the Wind for France, which I enjoyed last year), was somewhat different because told through the prism of her blindness.  It was improbable but dramatic and unexpected.   Most of all, I enjoyed the third story, which was set in WWII London and had a dramatic and magical feel.  Iris was a delightful heroine, practical and good humored, but capable of a great romance with a dashing French stranger.  I also liked Iris’ friendship with another young woman working in British Intelligence and her work for a formidable boss, Miss Acton.  Several times, I found myself wishing the whole book had been told from Iris’ perspective because (as has been well disclosed) I love books about young women’s war work. 

The author left it very late to reveal the mystery connecting the three novellas, and while I had somewhat figured out where she was going I was still surprised by some of the outcome (and admired the unexpected ending, despite not liking it).  Once I finished the book, I had to reread the entire first section to see if some of my confusion would be alleviated.

What I disliked:  As mentioned elsewhere, the three novellas were uneven and I am still perplexed by some of the things that happened to Ellie, including the significance of the man who committed suicide on the boat, and how a newspaper story about her landscape work caused a woman on a remote French island to seek her services (well, I understand how but wish it were a little more plausible). And I can’t help feeling it is a pity to have a devastating hero like Xavier but give him so little time on stage.  

Source: I received an advance copy of this book from Harper Collins in return for an honest review.  Despite some unanswered questions, I recommend The Sea Garden enthusiastically, especially to friends who share my passion for fiction about WWII – four stars.  Let’s compare notes about Ellie’s part of the story when you finish. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Outlander – Season 1, Episode 7, The Wedding – Recap

This is the episode everyone was waiting for, whether she (or the occasional he) had read the book or not, and the ratings reflected this anticipation: the highest for any episode.  The Wedding was watched by 3.8 million viewers and broke ratings records for Starz. Pretty amazing for a station people either didn’t know they had (yours truly) or subscribed to just for Outlander.
In the previous episode, Dougal extracted Claire from a vicious confrontation with Captain Randall and told her he couldn’t protect an English citizen but even Black Jack would not dare touch Claire if she were married to a Scot.  Still stunned from being punched in the stomach by someone who so closely resembles her lost husband Frank, Claire reluctantly agreed to marry Jamie – after ascertaining Jamie didn’t object. 

This episode begins with a flashback to Claire and Frank’s wedding: she is about to meet his parents for the first time when he sweeps her off to a registry office, and their kiss fades into Claire and Jamie’s wedding kiss.  Then the newly married 18th century couple is alone at last in their wedding chamber, both nervous.  Claire suggests a drink and Jamie makes a gallant toast.   Although he is clearly very eager to consummate the marriage, he knows she is apprehensive and tells her not to be afraid; he won’t jump her.   She tells him she has some questions and he warily agrees to answer them.   Claire asks why he agreed to marry her.  Jamie flashes back to Ned Gowan and Dougal telling him this was the only way to protect her from Randall.  Dougal then made a lewd comment about Claire (implying anyone would enjoy having sex with Claire) and Jamie said angrily that if she becomes his wife, Dougal will have to refer to her with respect.  “So you married me to keep me safe?” she asks.

“You have my name, my clan, my family and, if necessary, the protection of my body as well,” Jamie promises. Swoon! Claire is nearly as affected as I am, and sits beside him and he is about to kiss her when she panics and asks about his family as a distraction.  Time goes by while they get to know each other slightly better and Claire relaxes.   Rupert and Angus burst in to see whether Jamie has done the deed.  Once Jamie has got rid of them (one hopes he locked the door this time), Claire suggests they go to bed.

“To bed or to sleep?” Jamie inquires with a meaningful look.  “Either way” he offers politely to help her remove her corset.  He undresses her very carefully and they kiss, accompanied by lots of heavy breathing. 

“Where did you learn to kiss like that?” Claire asks, surprised.
“I said I was a virgin, not a monk,” Jamie tells her, with a triumphant smile.

Their first encounter is over quickly, perhaps because Jamie is a novice (albeit very enthusiastic) or impatient but also because they have both been told the marriage must be consummated with witnesses nearby.  Talk about embarrassing!   Jamie and Claire appear very comfortable together afterwards but when she starts feeling guilty about Frank and darts out of the bedchamber to get them food, she is caught off guard by all the MacKenzies who are lying in wait and shout out all sorts of inappropriate questions.  She is barely dressed and frozen with horror but Jamie gallantly guides her back into the bedroom and takes the brunt of the abuse.   

While he is gathering food, Dougal glares at him and says resentfully Jamie hasn’t thanked him properly for his bride.  Dougal is hating Jamie’s wedding night, which is not good uncle behavior.   He warns Jamie not to rush back to Claire or she’ll have too much power over him.  Dougal doesn’t realize Claire already has so much power over Jamie that Jamie repeats the whole conversation to her!  Claire secretly likes that but gulps down some more whiskey anyway (she has been drinking pretty steadily since Dougal told her about the wedding).  Her hard head for alcohol is one of the ways in which she fits right into the 18th century!

Jamie, getting back into the mood, leans over Claire and calls her “mo nighean donn”  (my brown haired lass) for the first time.  More swooning.  He tells her how he obtained a Fraser tartan for their wedding (he had not been seen in one previously because that would be advertising his identity and remember there’s a bounty on his head).  It may be hard for a modern audience to understand how important wearing the tartan was for a loyal clansman, but the English knew, thus banned it after Culloden so as to completely wipe out whatever sparks of rebellion might be left.  There is a flashback to a very improbable chat with stern-looking Murtagh – Jamie says he wants to look his best at the wedding to honor his mother.  Murtagh was sweet on Ellen MacKenzie who chose another man and died when Jamie was a child but when Jamie asks what his mother would have thought of Claire, Murtagh says, "Do I look like a gypsy?"  

Jamie tells Claire he gave Dougal some conditions about their marriage (Dougal in disgust, “It would be easier to kill you both!”): first, that they be married by a priest (they are both Catholic); second, that a special wedding ring be made for Claire from a key he’d been carrying around in his sporran; and third, that someone find Claire a suitable wedding dress.  I could have done without seeing Ned Gowan being “entertained” in the brothel where he locates a dress for Claire, but he certainly found her a lovely gown, although much too low cut.

While Jamie was being so thoughtful, Claire was hung-over, but both she and Jamie look resplendent when it’s time for the wedding.  It’s the first time we’ve seen Jamie dressed up (his hair looks a bit odd) and he is more stunning than she is!   Overcome, she says she doesn’t even know his name!   He looks into her eyes, and says, “James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.”   The wimpy priest Dougal frightened into performing the wedding without bans does his part and they are married in a church we’d all like to visit, full of candles and clansmen in attendance.  At the end of the ceremony Claire is startled when their wrists are slightly cut (by helpful Dougal) and bound together so they can utter a Gaelic vow of unity.  (In the book, Claire and Frank got married at the same church as Claire and Jamie, but London makes more sense.)

After they discuss their recollections of the wedding, Claire is touched by the care Jamie took to make her wedding day memorable and she expresses her appreciation by asking him to remove his shirt so she can show that his scarred back is not repugnant to her.   After a few minutes, Jamie asks her to remove her shift and then gazes at her carefully.

“Have you never seen a naked woman before?” she asks gently.  

“Aye, but not one so close. And not one who’s mine,” he says, and carries her to the bed.  This time Claire uses their encounter to show him what pleases her, to explain about orgasms, and stun him with oral sex.   Afterwards, Jamie falls asleep and Claire ventures outside the bedchamber where Dougal is lying in wait.  He reports that he visited Captain Randall and broke the happy news that Claire had married his nephew.
“I commend you for doing your duty but it needn’t stop you from sampling other pleasures.  I find you to be the most singular woman, Claire.”   He caresses her chin.
“I’m Jamie’s wife!” she protests.  This is absurd!  Has Dougal ever looked in a mirror?  Probably not often, due to a general scarcity.  But, seriously, even if Claire weren’t falling in love with Jamie, why would anyone want to sample Dougal?  In his dreams!
Luckily, Rupert interrupts.  Claire thanks him for getting her wedding ring.  After she returns to the bedchamber, Rupert jokes to Dougal that Claire looks “well ridden” – gross.   This annoys Dougal so much he slaps Rupert and sends him away.

Back in the bedchamber, Jamie wakes up and sees Claire looking melancholy (well, you might feel guilty too if you were a bigamist who enjoyed having sex with your new husband).  He gets up and removes a string of pearls from his handy sporran and drapes them over Claire’s bare shoulders, telling her they belonged to his mother.  They have sex again and this time it shows that Claire really cares about him, and is not merely doing her duty/saving herself from Captain Randall.

The next morning Jamie heads down to breakfast ahead of Claire.  As Claire picks up her wedding dress from the floor, her Frank wedding ring falls out and bounces across the floor symbolically, landing between floorboards.  I was afraid it was going to disappear but Claire pulled it out and put it on her left hand.  She holds her hands out and surveys both wedding rings as the episode ends.
What’s Important About This Episode:

·        This episode is primarily eye candy for the loyal fans and was beautifully done.  The sex scenes were broken up by flashbacks to advance the story (not to mention the dark bedchamber must have been challenging to film in).  There were some humorous interludes in and out of the bedroom (but what was with the creepy cat?).  My friend Carla complains that the miniseries omits the humor that made the book unique, so it was good to see some laughter that didn’t involve pervy clansmen crudeness.

·        Claire feels very guilty about marrying Jamie when she is already married to Frank.  Hence all the scotch.   However, Jamie is sufficiently attractive that anyone would forget Frank temporarily. 

·        It wasn’t quite as obvious in the book that Dougal lusted for Claire (he does have a wife *and* a girlfriend), although he did kiss her on the night of the Gathering, and there’s another incident later on.   But he is delusional if he thinks he’s competition for Jamie. 

·        Diana makes it clear that she wants Claire to be perceived as very comfortable with her sexuality, no matter what century she’s in.  Claire is confident about everything, however.  People are attracted to her not just because she is beautiful but because she is courageous and self-possessed – look at the way she stood up to Captain Randall.  They don’t know she’s a time traveler but they know she’s not like the women they know.

·        Will Claire’s handsome husband make her forget her determination to return to the standing stones?

Starz has just announced that Outlander will return for its midseason premiere on April 4, 2015.  Can't wait!

Images copyright to Starz

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The New Moon with the Old (Book Review)

Publication: 1963, Corsair paperback edition 2012
Genre: Fiction
Plot: Since her mother died, Jane Minton has sought live-in positions and has no permanent home so is full of anticipation for her new job as secretary/housekeeper to the attractive Rupert Carrington, a London businessman.  When she arrives, luggage in hand, at the Carringtons’ country home she meets his children, three adults: Richard, a mid-20s aspiring composer; Clare, pretty and ineffective; Drew, determined to write a novel set in the Edwardian era; and 14-year-old Merry, a precocious teen planning to go on the stage. When disaster strikes, Rupert is exposed as an embezzler and flees the country, while the Carrington offspring and Jane must join forces to save their existence at Dome House.

Author: Dorothy Gladys "Dodie" Smith (1896 – 1990) was an English novelist and playwright.  Smith is best known for her novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians which became a Disney (ugh) movie and for I Capture the Castle which, amazingly, I never read until my Betsy-Tacy cohorts recommended it about 15 years ago.  The title of this book apparently refers to a Coleridge poem.

Audience:  Anglophiles; fans of authors like D. E. Stevenson, Nancy Mitford, Rebecca Shaw, Katie Fforde

What I liked: I enjoyed this from the first page: She did not believe in omens but instantly knew this was a good one: the afternoon sun, coming from behind the clouds, had turned the grey of the glass dome to a shimmer of gold.  Seen from this hill top where she had got out of her car to reconnoiter – and there could be no doubt that was Dome House – the effect was quite dazzling and extremely cheering. 

Think of all the wonderful books that begin with an intrepid heroine approaching a unique house, and you won’t be able to resist either, although this is not a gothic romance but is very funny, light English fiction.  Jane is older than the traditional heroine, late 30s, but I enjoy older heroines now more than I did as a teen.   The book follows the four Carrington offspring as they cope with their father’s disappearance and try to make their way in the world.  It becomes more about their, albeit improbable, efforts and adventures than about Jane, who has become so fond of the siblings that she wants to stay with them and help them stay together.

Incidentally, it doesn’t sound very stressful to be the housekeeper for a large house with two maids (at least, pre-embezzlement when there are unlimited funds). The book is dated, in a charming way, and nowhere more than in its depiction of the beloved and faithful retainers who are taken to lunch every week by the Carrington siblings and join them to watch television at night.

What I disliked: While some readers complain that nothing really happens in this book, I disagree; however, I have always been a fan of riches-to-rags-type books.  I will say that perhaps I have read too much chick lit and was hoping for a happier ending for the heroine, Jane!  Nor did I care for the storyline/romantic interest of the eldest son.  It is an unusual book but delightful. 
Source: This book and another by Smith, The Town in Bloom, were gifts from Emily Gold who was delighted to find I was unfamiliar with them. Thank you for a great read. What lovely new covers and they are now available inexpensively at Daedalus