It’s best to say from the start that romance novels and their tropes have never been my thing. While I know all genres have these, the traits most associated with romantic writing seem to annoy me the most, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s for no good reason. It shouldn’t really matter that all the male characters are conventionally attractive, but it does; does that local area just have seriously good genes? Why can’t they be good-looking without lean muscles and perfect features? And how come they all have the same taste in women – or, rather, one woman, who, surprise surprise, just so happens to be the heroine? While seeing a hero sacrifice everything for the people he loves does satisfy that part of me that wants that sort of unconditional love, after a while it starts to feel like authors are creating unnecessary male angst for the sake of emotionally manipulating their readers.
I realise that this is coming across as a bit of an anti-romance rant, but you needed to know that I had plenty of prejudices before I even started reading “Cross Stitch.” First published in 1991, its author, Diana Gabaldon, describes it on her website as ‘historical fiction.’ Set in 1700s Scotland, the novel follows Claire Beauchamp, a woman who has unwittingly travelled from 1945 to 1743 with the help of an ancient stone circle. Leaving behind one husband, lecturer Frank Randall, she finds another in one Jamie Fraser, a Highlander on the run from the English redcoats and Frank’s ancestor, Captain Jack. For me, the book is a romance due to the focus on Claire and Jamie’s relationship; one which has proved so popular that it has generated nine other related texts according to Gabaldon’s website, including a graphic novel, and the popular television series ‘Outlander’.
It’s because of this series that I decided to read ‘Cross Stitch’, despite suspecting that it wasn’t going to be my thing. As pedantic as it is, I like reading the books before I watch the films or shows – although, that would probably have been easier than getting through the 863 pages that make up the first part of the series. I tried to be neutral in regard to the tropes, but, like Claire in her attempt not to fall for Jamie, I failed. Of course, they’re all attractive, even the psychopathic Captain Randall, and most of them want Claire. There’s a part where Jamie beats Claire for disobedience which becomes okay: one, because of the circumstances, and two, he feels bad about it and changes as a result – reasoning which I have never agreed with in any romance plot. Said hero encounters two sets of floggings, a rape, a narrowly-escaped execution, the threatened rape of his wife and sister, and becomes an outlaw for a crime that he didn’t commit. True, it’s a long book, but even then, the amount of male angst seems excessive.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some good points: Claire is a feisty, strong-willed heroine and I absolutely love her. While the amount of historical detail slowed the plot at times, it’s clear that Gabaldon took a lot of time and research to get everything just right, and I have a lot of respect for her because of that. But it wasn’t enough to outweigh the annoyances, and this wasn’t one of my favourite reads. I can only hope that ‘Outlander’ the show will be much better than the book it’s based on.