Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

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Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A passionate love story set in the Highlands during the buildup to the Jacobite rising, this novel is set against a background of Highland nature and history. We meet the clansmen and the chieftains, the redcoats and the witches. Despite the length it's a rollicking read, obviously a very easy one at that and if you manage to ignore the failings, an enjoyable way to waste a few evenings.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 864 Date: July 1992
Publisher: Arrow
ISBN: 0099911701

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I have a weakness for time-travel novels, less because of their sci-fi element and more because they allow for good and often funny social contrasting. Bit like the prince and the pauper scenario but across time rather than class boundaries. Strangely enough, a lot of these time-travel books are actually classified outside sci-fi genre, in fact some are even tentatively placed in the so-called mainstream.

Cross-stitch is, however, a definite genre book, the genre in question being a historical romance and Cross-stitch being a bodice-ripper extraordinaire, the first part of five-part series and at over 800 pages per volume something to be reckoned with.

Claire Randall is a qualified nurse and a bit of an amateur herbalist. She is on holiday in the Highlands with her husband Frank following their reunion after the end of WW2. The books starts in 1946, but a visit to a standing stone circle quickly results in Claire being transported back almost 200 years to the year 1743, and the lead up to the Jacobite rebellion and Culloden. There (and then) Claire finds her feet, manages to use her knowledge of hygiene and medicine to gain something of a reputation as a healer and eventually meets, marries and falls in love with a young and beautiful Highland soldier Jamie Fraser. Their love is passionate and their adventures are many, including attempted rape - twice, witch burning, homosexual torture, bare handed wolf-fighting and a brief encounter with the Loch Ness Monster.

The story is set against a background of Highland nature and history. We meet the clansmen and the chieftains, the Watch, redcoats and their English officers, witches, healers and midwives, bards and priests, Gypsies and lawyers. Despite the length it's a rollicking read, obviously a very easy one at that and if you manage to ignore the failings, an enjoyable way to waste a few evenings.

The failings are two-fold. Firstly, one which is perhaps a general feature of the genre and I shouldn't complain but I will anyway. There is just MUCH too much corny(ish) descriptions of passionate sex in Cross-stitch, at least half of them do nothing to move the story or character development forward and seem pretty much the way the author uses to "reach the gussets of Gloucestershire" (or of Iowa, perhaps, as Diana Gabaldon is American). Still, there is just too much skilled hands, smells of satiated desire and enveloping tides. Think Fanny Hill cum Jilly Cooper cum Captain Correlli's Mandolin and you won't be far wrong. The corniness level is actually not too bad by the genre standards, there is just too much of it!

The second failing with Cross-stitch is it's an utter psychological anachronism. It's actually strange as Gabaldon does the behaviours, customs and social mores of the time pretty realistically, at least it seems so to a non-historian like me. But all too often this historical realism goes out of the window when the main characters come on stage.

Example: corporal punishment is common for children and wives, criminals and misbehaving clansmen. The 18th century characters accept is as normal as long as it doesn't get excessive, while Claire is appalled. Leaving aside the degree to which a British nurse from 1946 would be realistically appalled by corporal punishment, so far so good. But then comes a scene when Claire and her newly wedded husband Jamie engage in an extended reminiscence and analysis of the effect the childhood thrashings had on him and his relationship with his father (thankfully for the realism, he's not at all traumatised). Excuse me, but I can sniff a stench of post-psychotherapy, post-Spock, post-60's USA, not exactly in place in 18th century Scotland.

Similarly, in a scene in which a heavily pregnant woman launches into extremely sensual description of what it is like to be pregnant in front of not only her sister in law but also her husband and her brother, with the description including comparisons to the sexual act and references to orgasm, all psycho-historical validity disappears into the Scottish haar. Don't get me wrong, the description was quite good if bit kitschy and would be reasonably in place at an encounter group for faculty wives in the 70's Berkeley; but I just cannot believe that a minor Scottish noblewoman, even a Catholic and a wild Highlander, even as feisty and earth-motherish as the one in question would have such a conversation. Ever.

Add to that the fact that Claire is commonly referred to as 'lassie' despite being nominally a widow, and in her mid-twenties; and even after she marries is a subject of frequent sexual banter from her husband's men at arms, in his presence; and you will see to what degree you need to suspend disbelief to enter into the spirit of things with Cross-stitch.

If you manage to, though, then there is a colourful adventure, lots of humour, funny banter and a likeable, energetic, rational, foul-mouthed heroine; charming love interest in the form of Jamie, a complicated, decadent and wonderfully perverted villain plus of course the Great Love and the Romance of Scotland with plenty of local flavour.

I think this book would have been much better had some of the passion descriptions been curtailed and had the author refrained from giving some of her major 18th century characters modern sensibilities.

Within the confines of bubble-gum fiction this deserves 4 stars, but I will be mean and give 3 for these psychoanalytical conversations.

Not a book to buy, but borrow by all means for some brainless fun.

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Jill said:

I can't stop laughing! I love bodice rippers. If a bosom heaved, I will read it. If not, I'll just read your review over and over.

Sue said:

Jill, calm yourself, please!

Magda said:

I don't think a bosom heaved, Jill. She's too self aware for that ;-) But tides enveloped definitely. And a partial lost of consciousness (or maybe full, my memory fails me) after orgasm was effected.

I forgot to add my competition line: a person who identifies correctly where the line about reaching the gussets of Gloucestershire comes from will get a choice of (second hand but in great condition) Elegance, Labirynth or a Patricia Cornwell novel I can't remember the title of at the moment (but it's rather thick and green on the cover).

beverley.kerry said:

I agree with this review. It's an easy book to pick up and put down, without gettig confused or forgetting the plot.

Amie Slavin said:

I thoroughly enjoyed this book while on holiday in Scotland and visiting historic castles. However, it is, truthfully, pretty awful; a definite guilty pleasure. Way too much sex, pretty cynically included on the ‘sex sells’ line. It wasn’t badly written, just way too plentiful, and woe betide the heroine if I ever get hold of her, educating her wonderful man to take his weight on his elbows. Excuse me but…won’t over-share further lol. I loved the researched elements, social history, politics, landscape, customs. It often felt like a predictable chain of researched episodes strung together any old how though. I loved reading the witch episode, but groaned out loud when it turned up bang on cue, just after I’d been muttering to myself “Hmmm, we haven’t done witches yet, have we Diana; 3, 2, 1…’. Still, hard to satisfy a reader like me who loves the social history, without letting the research show; she’d have to be out of the ordinary to achieve it, and sadly she is not. Jamie was deliscious, of course, but our love for him is based on a bold outline of character, not skilful development of character, and Clare is horribly nasty to him, and to everyone, I thought. Gullible in the extreme when befriended by her known enemy, yet rude and snappy throughout the book, and I speak as an outspoken, feisty Feminist. I didn’t identify with her narky tone, especially when used on those engaged in risking their lives to save hers. The meeting with the monster was just stupid; inexcusable; ridiculous; cheap. The time anomily of Randall’s death was interesting, but left unaddressed, other than by a sort of “of well, never mind that; can’t be bothered” kind of tone; likewise the date given by the other possible future traveller; just left hanging. Are these things picked up in later books? Given these loose hanging threads, I was sad to finish the book in fury, as I discovered the author, clearly loving her own imagined skill as a pornographer, ended her narrative with yet more sex, rather than any meaningful tying up of the story, characters or subject matter. I’m sad to review in this very grumpy tone as I genuinely enjoyed the book; a lovely,, harmless companion on my Scottish holiday, giving a good flavour of English brutality, which is all too historical and despicable. Its faults are the reason I probably won’t read more fiction by this rather cynical author; it was fun though, and Jamie is a darling, obvs! J