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Book Review: Pillars of the Earth

Ok.  I’m going to get right to it – I HATED this book.

My Pillars of the Earth Review is going to be harsh.

Look. I know this book came out in 1989 but it still gets so much attention, I had to pick it up.pillars of the earth review

From the absolutely ridiculous magical forest sex scene right up front to the constant rape fantasies…here we have 900-something pages of Days of Our Lives set in 10th Century England.  This is the kind of book I will never understand.  Here the author put so much effort into researching and writing such a large work…but…it ends up being so bad you have to ask….why?

Do we really need another book full of violent sexual abuse of women?!?!  No.  And we dont need revisionist trash either.  This book sucks.

Pillars of the Earth tells the story of a cathedral, its history, construction and the people that surround the building.  This is a soap opera of the highest degree.  Rape, murder, political intrigue, starvation, adoption, sex in the forest, women dying in childbirth, evil men getting fat…good lord.  You know you’re in trouble when, in the opening pages, a woman dies in childbirth in the forest, during winter, leaving her two children and the father alone and then some golden-eyed hottie appears out of the forest and fucks the grieving father senseless for days on end while the baby is rescued from atop its mother’s grave by a priest…no, seriously.  It’s in the book.

Ken Follett is not a great writer.  He is prolific and being a writer myself I find that impressive but he has no style.  His writing is simplistic and boring.  He vacillated between pages and pages and pages of highly complex architectural discourses to second-grade level simple sentences grouped into short paragraphs.  The architecture discourse was the only thing that felt real in this book. While the overall story (the construction of a cathedral) is a fascinating one, the way it is told is infuriating.  The book quickly becomes trite and repetitive. ‘Evil’ William who gets a “stirring in his loins” every time he thinks of raping a woman and bad-boy Bishop Bigod try again and again to take down plucky Prior Philip and the family of Tom Builder and stop the cathedral from being built.  They always fail. Its like a kid’s cartoon.

If I have yet to be clear about my feelings toward this book, read on.

The characters are pathetic.  It is nearly impossible to become attached them.  They are staid and exist only to help move the plot along – like that red-shirted security guy in Star Trek who always gets beamed out into space. Characters that serve no purpose are impossible to fall in love with. As are single dimensional characters.  The good were good, the bad were bad and the good were always put upon by the bad.  None of these characters were subtle or complex…humanity is nowhere to be found in this novel. But don’t worry…there is a happy ending….a horribly contrived happy ending, that is.

Follett could have told the whole story in 300 pages. Fifty would have been enough. The incessant need to tie up every little detail and to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with every character was pathetic.  The need to explain every little plot twist and achieve closure on every level is a weakness in his writing.  Had someone else write it and then it might have been a decent book.  To give him credit, his architectural research was very well done.  The parts that describe how cathedrals were built and why is very educational.  Sadly, they were few and far between.

Follett was praised for the historical research he did for this novel.  But I can find little to praise.  He shows a very shallow understanding of the period and his vision OF that period should not serve as education to anyone.  Beware fiction reader!

Did Follett know that literate people were few and far between at the time? Did he know that, at the time this novel was set, England and Wales were clearly distinct nations? Did he know that reading and writing were two separate skill-sets?  Those who knew how to read did not necessarily know how to write and vice-versa.  Stories were oral and his vision of the scriptorium…defective, to say the least. Did he understand medieval law?  Rights?  Social classes and gender roles?  No.

What we end up here is an untrustworthy revisionist retelling, not a historical novel.  Many historical novels can be full of great information and the reader can go away from his/her experience more educated to a particular time period. Sadly, there is so much information out there about this period that Follett embarrasses himself by not diving in and doing the hard work. Dear reader, this book is not up to snuff.  Do not think you learned anything upon completion.

Again, I wonder about these books.  The premise is ok.  But, why write something like this? Why write something this shallow?

I’ll never understand.

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