Familiar in a Strange Land
Diana Gabaldon’s popular historical romance series Outlander is having a moment since it was recently rebooted as a TV show. I’m talking about romances this month, so it seemed like a good book to revisit.
I’ve had a really hard time getting into the Outlander series. The books are widely beloved and came highly recommended to me by my former boss, but Outlander was just meh for me. I ended up reading the first book three times -- not because I loved it, I honestly didn’t care for it much at all -- but because I kept trying to get swept up into the magic that so many others have found within its pages. I have finished the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, zero times. Just lost interest, and I have a hard time reading a book as an assignment rather than out of enjoyment. There are too many awesome books in the world I could be reading instead.
Despite my overall misgivings, the setup of Outlander is intriguing. A woman from the year 1945, Army nurse Claire Randall, is transported by a circle of magical Druidic stones* back in time to the year 1743 where she meets and falls in love with sexy Scotsman Jamie Fraser.
There’s a wrinkle to all this, though, and it’s that in the year 1945, Claire Randall is totally married.
One time I was chatting with a darling older relative of mine, and she was telling me about a romantic dream she’d had about Pierce Brosnan. She said, “It was so funny because in my mind I kept coming up with all these reasons why my husband wasn’t around. He was working, he was busy, he was on a trip, and then he was dead!” And we laughed and laughed because I could totally relate. I mean, husbands, you know? It’s not that you don’t like the guy, but sometimes you just wanna spend some quality time with Pierce Brosnan.
That’s The Husband Problem.
For some reason, a lot of women, myself very much included, have a tough time getting into fantasy scenarios if they aren’t at least a little bit realistic. And there’s little that’s less realistic than riding off into the sunset with Pierce Brosnan or his bodice-ripping doppleganger when some other guy is popping up in the middle of your daydream asking where his keys are and if you remembered to pay the gas bill this month. And he doesn’t even have to actually interrupt you to cockblock you. It’s enough to know that he exists. The real world needs to go away for a while and Dearest Hubby is most decidedly a part of the real world.
It’s not your husband per se, it’s that he represents the intrusion of the real world into the realm of the fantasy. You have to get rid of him -- mentally anyway -- to get swept away to wherever it is you want to go. In dudespeak, it’s like if every time you went to utilize the ol’ pressure release valve, there was a hologram of your mother reminding you to take out the trash appearing smack dab in the middle of the Victoria’s Secret Catalogue.
Outlander may not be my fave book ever but I must admit, Diana Gabaldon has a clever solution for The Husband Problem. Most romances evade The Husband Problem entirely by giving us a nubile and unformed 17 year old heroine with no family ties, but I’ve found as I have gotten older, the adventures of nubile unformed 17 year olds are not terribly interesting to me. In Outlander, Gabaldon tackles THP head on by making Claire’s husband into the bad guy instead.
It’s not really Claire’s husband, of course. It’s the ancestor of Claire’s husband, Jonathan Randall, who happens to look exactly like Claire’s husband Frank, only he’s completely and totally evil.
Now, you may think you know where this is going, that there’s going to be a bizarre love triangle in which Jonathan Randall obsesses over Claire, but then it turns out that Randall is actually kinda more into Jamie. It’s an even bizarre-er love triangle than you were expecting.
Some pretty weird stuff happens in this book. I’ll leave it at that.
Romance novels can tell us a lot about the ways men and women are different. That’s partly why it’s fun (for me anyway, I pity you, my poor captive audience) to write about them. And basically what it boils down to, is this…
It’s top secret. Lean in.
Men are visual.
Ok, I’m kidding, It’s way more than that, of course. I think maybe a better way to put it is that for women, romantic fantasy is greater than the sum of its parts, and for men, it’s mostly about the parts and not so much the sum. I’ve never been a man, at least in any lifetime I recall, so I can’t speak to that experience. But from what I’ve witnessed as a casual observer, it appears to involve specifics -- like trying a certain extraspicy position or breaking a taboo or focusing upon a particular body part or series of body parts or on a particular partner or series of partners. Women seem to focus more on the overall situation, the scenario, and not so much on the gory details.
One time my husband asked me to tell him a fantasy and I said, “Once upon a time there was a man and a woman, and they were passionately in love!” And then he looked at me expectantly but that was really all I had. In my head there was a big elaborate setup, lots of obstacles were overcome, misunderstandings were smoothed over, then they kissed or embraced or maybe did a little groping. And that was it.
If you’ve seen the part of When Harry Met Sally where she describes her biggest sexual fantasy you get the general idea.
It was the journey of people falling in love and all the stuff that went into that journey -- where they were going, what they were doing, what they thought about while they were going someplace and doing something, what they were wearing and eating and what the weather was and everything they packed to take along with them upon the voyage -- that turned my crank and not the what-came-next. Most of my fantasies are sadly (well, it’s not sad for me, IDGAF, but it’s probably sad for anyone who would like to hear me talk about them in detail) kind of PG-13 affairs where the wardrobe and the cast and plot and the scenery and the menu and what the main characters think about everything are all-important and the sexual particulars aren’t even remotely as thrilling.
I believe that’s why women read romances and why romance novels > porn for us. Pictures in a magazine or video on a computer screen don’t do a whole lot for me. Even written descriptions of sexual acts lack appeal. When it comes to a really graphic romance like Fifty Shades of Grey or whatever, I find myself skimming the sex stuff because it’s mindnumbingly boring and to be honest, kind of a little gross.
I want the setup, not the conclusion. The conclusion I can come up with myself.
I sometimes think males and females are the victims of a cosmic joke in which we’ve evolved to want and like different things in pretty much every arena of life and most of those things are mutually exclusive. Somebody is always settling for something that’s less than ideal for them. And that’s the best case scenario. Worst case, everyone’s miserable -- lonely, isolated, feeling unloved and unappreciated and unfulfilled. In no arena of life are these differences greater than in matters of sexuality. There’s no utopian scenario where if only we read the right books or watch the right episode of Dr. Phil, that men and women are gonna be equally happy with the exact same aspects of every romantic and/or physical encounter. Our Venn diagrams of sexual happiness only marginally intersect. Maybe we just aren’t built the same, or maybe it’s the software. Either way, we can’t adequately communicate our wants and needs to each other, because what’s superduperly important to one of us is irrelevant, even meaningless to the other.
That disconnect is very difficult to fake your way through. He gives us flowers because he knows we like it and not because it does anything for him. Which is a nice gesture, but those who have been married a long time know that things that are nice gestures tend to get lost in the shuffle of work and kids and sheer physical exhaustion. Buying flowers becomes less of a nice gesture and more a chore, or worse, an attempt to buy a response that may not be forthcoming.
All this is why The Husband Problem is such a problem in real life, not only in the pages of a book. Because not only can’t you ride off into the sunset with Pierce Brosnan if your mind is full of worries and responsibilities and irritating Facebook posts and Marie Kondo and the status of various household tasks, you can’t ride off into the sunset with your actual man, either. At least not ecstatically and with complete physical abandon.
Real life gets in the way of female sexuality. Full stop.
Husbands are awesome. They really are. Husbands are partners and buddies and you work with them side by side to accomplish important household and life tasks. You love them and like them and if you’re lucky like me you are attracted to them. But at the end of the day, it’s all very mundane, isn’t it? There’s very little ripping of bodices and even if there was, knowing you’ll be the one who has to sew it back together eventually is a major buzzkill. You’ve both been up since 5 am doing all these really unsexy tasks -- changing diapers, mowing the lawn, doing dishes, scooping the cat litter box, reading bedtime stories and getting each kiddo 400 glasses of water, working at some job where you’re likely underpaid and not at all appreciated -- and then what?
Keep in mind that real life gets in the way of female sexuality.
He’s too tired to create a romantic scenario, he just wants a pile of quivering body parts. And she’s too tired to be reduced to a pile of quivering body parts without a romantic scenario (particularly as she’s laying there next to the pile of laundry waiting to be put away, the permission slip that needs to be signed, the clothes laid out for work in the morning). What one partner wants requires work on the part of the other and while it’s a nice gesture to make the effort, it IS effort. It’s hard work that no one really wants to do at the end of the day. Hubby serves as an avatar of all the stuff that Wifey needs do to and hasn’t done that keep her from relaxing into fantasy so she can become the quivering pile of body parts that he requires. And it doesn’t take too long before “become quivering pile of body parts” becomes another chore to be marked off the to-do list.
And yet, there’s a weird dichotomy in romance novels. Even though we know there is a Husband Problem and in fact it’s why many of us read romances to begin with (Oh, Pierce…), the vast majority of romances portray marriage as a desirable and wonderfully happy state of affairs. Marriage is even, in a great many romance novels, presented as a handy solution for some terrible problem the heroine faces. She’s lost her virtue, she needs to get out of a bad living situation, she’s being pursued by a villainous cad and must be protected. Of the 6 romances I read this month, the heroine ended up married in 5 of them, and married primarily as a solution to a problem in 4. (I never finished the Fifty Shades series. For all I know bells were ringing in all 6.) Marriage, to the rescue!
Romance novels are pro-marriage propaganda.
How can there be both a Husband Problem and a Marriage Solution? How can these two seemingly incompatible things coexist in the pages of a romance?? (Aside from the characters from living fictional lives that are utterly divorced from reality, that is. I did not see a lot of litter box scooping going on in Ashes in the Wind. And as I’ve said before, being a fictional character really does kinda grease the wheels of life for you.)
A lot of people believe that romance novels are harmful in the same way that a lot of people believe pornography is harmful. They will tell you that romance novels create unrealistic expectations that men could never live up to, and that they set women up for disappointment in marriage. While I can see where they’re coming from, I suppose, this has not been my experience. (I have never expected my husband to rip any article of clothing I own and in fact I’d be exceedingly pissed if he did.) Instead, I’ve found that experiencing the excitement of a new -- if fictional -- relationship vicariously right up to the happily ever after can feel rejuvenating. Makes you think about love and marriage and all the positive things about that guy who isn’t exactly Pierce Brosnan but is a whiz with cat litter boxes. The feelings that are stirred by the romance novels are transferrable into the real world.
So I think it’s pretty cool for Diana Gabaldon to try and solve The Husband Problem while still giving us the Marriage Solution. Even though Outlander doesn’t really do it for me personally, it does for some people and that’s great. I can’t recommend the book, but I commend the creativity.
A romance novel like Outlander can be in effect a circle of Druidic stones you pass through into another world in which cat litter has never been invented. But you get to come back whenever you want.
Because in this world, your husband is the good guy.
*If you’d like to read a not-at-all-romantic Black Mirror-y story I wrote about social media, impersonal sex, and the curious magic of Druidic Stones, please check out Wonders After Dark.
Photo by erwlas