Novels That Have It All (Or a Whole Lot)


Diana Gabaldon has said that her 1991 novel Outlander contains “history, warfare, medicine, sex, violence, spirituality, honor, betrayal, vengeance, hope and despair, relationships, the building and destruction of families and societies, time travel, moral ambiguity, swords, horses, herbs, gambling (with cards, dice, and lives), voyages of daring, journeys of both body and soul…”

Few authors pack all that into one book, but Gabaldon did, as I found out after reading the terrific Outlander this past week. It of course makes it more likely for a novel to be comprehensive when it’s long (the Outlander edition I read runs 627 small-print pages), but shorter novels can also pack in a lot — even as some “doorstop” books are not especially multifaceted. After a bit of discussion of Outlander, I’ll mention a few other novels that include an unusually large number of elements and themes.

The best-selling Outlander — which has spawned seven sequels, various related written works, and a current TV series — opens with protagonist Claire (pictured above) in 1946 before the independent-minded former World War II nurse is thrust back to 1743 Scotland. All the things mentioned in this blog post’s first paragraph dramatically ensue. Plus there’s humor.

Outlander is exceptionally well-written, but more popular fiction than literary fiction. Yet popular fiction can still touch many bases. Another example from the mass-audience realm is James Clavell’s Shogun — which mixes romance, warfare, history, culture clashes, different kinds of leadership, and much more in its nearly 1,000 pages mostly set in year-1600 Japan. And there’s J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series — though that of course takes seven books to spool out its cornucopia of magic, wizards, humans, friendship, adventure, courage, sacrifice, good vs. evil, comedy, etc.

Then there’s literary fiction or literary/popular fiction hybrids that include a wide variety of events, themes, emotions, and so on. Among them are Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (covering everything from…war to peace); Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (family, relationships, patriarchy, crime, philosophy, etc.); George Eliot’s Middlemarch (town life, work life, complicated marriages, scholarship, the medical field, etc.); A.S. Byatt’s Possession (the 19th and 20th centuries, academia, research, romance, poetry, etc.); Elsa Morante’s History (World War II, fascism, parenting, precocious children, etc.); Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (racism, nationalism, Marxism, individualism, city life, etc.); Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (family, relationships, many generations, politics, magic realism, etc.); and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (marriage, politics, the Iraq War, environmentalism, etc.).

Novels you’ve read that tackle a whole lot of things?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — a quirky year-in-review — is here.

27 thoughts on “Novels That Have It All (Or a Whole Lot)

  1. I have to say that “War and Peace” fits the subject of this article more than anything I have ever read. It includes battles, balls, love stories, a revenge plot, a duel, even a wolf hunt and essays on the meaning of history. However, I find sometimes I had trouble concentrating on this novel because it crams too much into one book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, I think I’m in the minority here, but I didn’t care all that much for Outlander. Shocking, I know 😦 Some of my friends keep telling me I will like the show even if I didn’t like the book, but so far I haven’t tried to find out. I have War and Peace cued up on my Kindle and I hope to get to it someday soon! 🙂 Hope you had wonderful holidays, Dave! I did a lot of reading over the break that I will look forward to discussing here. I will say that one of the books I’m inching my way through (and it’s well overdue) is the Count of Monte Cristo. That book certainly tackles a whole lot of things! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Not a problem that we have different feelings about “Outlander.” 🙂 As I mentioned to Susan in another comment, I do think the novel had its over-dramatic and repetitive moments, and was a strange mix of feminist and un-feminist. Part of the reason I loved it was that I love time-travel novels so much that a book in that genre would have to be atrocious for me not to find it compelling. 🙂

      Great that you’re reading “The Count of Monte Cristo”! I think it’s riveting. And good luck with “War and Peace”!

      BTW, I read “The Alice Network” last week! I’ll wait to discuss it until my January 12 blog post, in which that novel is prominently featured. I loved it, of course.

      I hope your holidays were wonderful, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am going to nominate Stendahl’s “The Charterhouse of Palrma”, which covers familial rivalry, familial loyalties, the Battle of Waterloo, cross-border diplomacy, the deadly myopia of small-state political intrigue, strategic romance, dueling, escape from a prison tower, love’s eventual yet short-lived triumph over all obstacles (including ecclesiastical), parenthood, and even, though briefly and at the very end, the charterhouse of Parma. Also, too: other things.

    Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! That novel — which I finally read a few years ago — DOES cover a lot. You listed the biggies. Amazing that “The Charterhouse of Parma” was written in a mere 52 days. 😮

      Happy New Year to you, too!


      • I seem to remember Stendahl dictated the novel, at least mostly– if true, he must have been hoarse by the time the charterhouse gets a mention, at least mostly.

        Hope, somewhere down the long page, “The Red and the Black” has a place on your reading list.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh Dave, I was hoping that when you got around to Outlander, I wouldn’t be on my own in thinking that it’s over-rated. But I guess I’ll just stay in my corner all by myself trying to figure out what all the fuss is about…

    I’ve just finished reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I won’t say it had it all, but it certainly did have a lot. I’m actually a bit undecided about whether I liked it or not, because maybe it had just a bit too much. But I did really like the writing, so I’ve put The Satanic Verses on my TBR. Lucky that I didn’t make any kind of resolution to not add to my list in 2020.

    I’ve also just read Jamie Maslin’s travel book The Long Hitch Home. Jamie got bored with his life in the UK so he flew to the very bottom Australia and then hitch-hiked home! Visiting so many countries and being exposed to so many cultures is definitely a contender for having it all!

    It’s 4:30 pm here and I’m starting to think about wrapping up my Christmas break and getting ready to return to work tomorrow. I guess at 1:30 in the morning, you’re either raging at some all night party, or you’re sleeping. Either way, it will be the New Year when you read this, so Happy New Year to you, your family, and all the people who comment here. Wishing you all lots of fantastic reading in 2020!

    Dave, I missed one of the closing Italics tags again, can you please delete the double comment? I have found a way to preview my comments though, so I won’t bug you with this again. Thanks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! On one level, I hear what you’re saying about “Outlander.” It’s at times over-dramatic, at times repetitive, and a weird mix of feminist and not-so-feminist. Yet it still worked for me; I liked it a lot. Maybe part of the reason is that I love time-travel novels so much that a book in that genre would have to be REALLY bad for me not to be a fan. 🙂

      Salman Rushdie is an author I should read more of…

      Yes, some travel books and some nonfiction books in general can “have it all” — Mark Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad” (which I’ve mentioned several times before) would be one of those for me. “The Long Hitch Home” sounds terrific!

      Happy New Year to you, too, as well as everyone else reading and commenting here! I didn’t make it to midnight this year. We were invited to one party, but decided to keep things low-key this time. Good luck with your return to work!

      Will delete the other comment… 🙂


  5. Many years ago, my son’s bagpiping teacher, bagpiped Diana Gabaldon into a room with a packed audience. And this was well before the series came to the screen. When there is a good story that captures the spirit of adventure, love, betrayal – all that your wrote in your posts – readers show up. Here’s a question for you. Do we think our personal stories are as exciting or do we look for books to give us our adventures? Looking forward to our next podcast conversation!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Clanmother! That’s quite a bagpiping memory related to a novel that’s SO Scotland. 🙂 (At least an 18th-century version of that country.)

      As for your excellent question, novels tend to be more dramatic and exciting than real life. But sometimes “truth is stranger than fiction,” and of course real life can be more interesting because it’s…real life.

      I’m also looking forward to our next podcast conversation!

      Liked by 1 person

      • So very well said “more interesting because it’s…real life.” The bagpiper (my son’s teacher) belonged to the “78th Fraser Highlanders” which was perfect as he wore their special uniform. I understand that there was two honour guards, in the same full dress, that accompanied the procession. It was a grand entrance.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. It’s not a novel, but I just read “Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump,” by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch — and it has everything and everyone in it, damn near. Disheartening book because of the subject matter, but well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bill! Terrific point that some nonfiction has just about everything one would want to see in a book. And some things (like Trump’s assault on democracy) one doesn’t want to see. 😦


  7. Hi Dave,I’m afraid my days of reading long epic novels are now over and have been for a while now. After a somewhat extended reading drought, I’m trying to get back to it now that things have settled down somewhat in my life. I just started reading Lisa Genova’s novel “Every Note Played.” The main character is an egotistical world-renown concert pianist, who we learn in the first chapter has been diagnosed with ALS. The other main character is his ex-wife, who gave up a promising musical career to raise their daughter. So far, in this relatively short novel, the author has touched on marriage; divorce; parenting; love of music, especially the piano; the ex-wife who now teaches classical music to high school student, yet has an undying affection for jazz; and especially the effects of this horrible disease and the caretaking and equipment needs for someone who has to live with ALS. It is truly heartbreaking even if one isn’t that sympathetic to the concert pianist, especially when he loses the use of both hands and can no longer play his Steinway grand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! Well, there are countless non-epic novels worth reading. 🙂 And Lisa Genova packs a LOT into her books even though they’re not super-long. Sounds like “Every Note Played” does that in its devastating way. I imagine there are inspiring moments, too, as there are in the three heartbreaking Genova novels I’ve read (“Still Alice,” “Inside the O’Briens,” and “Left Neglected”).


  8. Well Dave I would be remiss if I didn’t mention John Jakes’s “The Bastard” and the rest of the Kent Family Chronicles.

    Clocking in at over 700 pages for the trade paperback it was a massive story covering a lot of things in any one of the 8 novels. The first book starts before and leads up to the American Revolution. The series pushes through to the Reconstruction Era. I highly recommend it

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Gen!

      I’ve heard great things about The Kent Family Chronicles. If I’m remembering correctly, commenter Susan here is also a big fan. I just might have to try it. 🙂

      And if I’m remembering something else correctly, I think you also recommended “Outlander” — a few years ago. Much appreciated!


      • You’re remembering correctly, Dave 🙂 I often mention this series as they often fit the topic because they do have it all, or at least a whole lot.

        I love that Jakes manages to have a different feel for different parts of the series. There’s so much history and geography in there, but you never forget where or when you are. He also has distinct voices for each of his many characters. I love to recommend these books, however I always point out that at around 5,000 pages, it is a bit of a commitment to make!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Okay, at least America’s Republicans haven’t taken away my memory. 🙂

          That series does sound impressive and varied, Susan! I probably can’t make a 5,000-word commitment, but I could always read the first book and reluctantly stop after that — as I did with George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” series.


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