Ken Follett wrote this perennial bestseller in 1989 and I've owned a copy since 2003. Given that The Pillars of the Earth was first published 27 years ago and given that I've had this book awaiting my attention for over a decade, I finally decided to bring it with me on my Hawaiian adventure. Weighing in at 983 pages, I figured that it would keep me occupied for the duration of my trip. Having sold millions of copies in a myriad of languages, I was persuaded that it would be an awesome read. Wrong. . .
It's not a bad book, really. Far from that. I just felt that it wasn't a very compelling read, that the pace was atrociously slow, and that I didn't really care about any of the characters. By the time I had read about a third of the book, I was no longer truly interested in the tale or its protagonists. I was just going through the motions, hoping to make it to the end. And though it got a bit better before the ending, I'm not sure this is a work I would recommend. It's perfect for killing time, so as a vacation read it did its job quite well. But it's not the kind of novel that stays with you once you've reached the last page. . .
Here's the blurb:
The spellbinding epic set in twelfth-century England, The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of the lives entwined in the building of the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has ever known—and a struggle between good and evil that will turn church against state, and brother against brother. In a time of civil war, famine and religious strife, there rises a magnificent Cathedral in Kingsbridge. Against this backdrop, lives entwine: Tom, the master builder, Aliena, the noblewoman, Philip, the prior of Kingsbridge, Jack, the artist in stone and Ellen, the woman from the forest who casts a curse. At once, this is a sensuous and enduring love story and an epic that shines with the fierce spirit of a passionate age.
The sinking of the White Ship that left King Henry I of England without a legitimate heir is the historical backdrop of this novel. The events chronicled within the pages of The Pillars of the Earth take place between 1123 and 1174. Most of the action occur in the the small fictional town of Kingsbridge and centers on the controversial building of a new cathedral. With the king's death, England is plunged into chaos as Henry's nephew Stephen of Blois and Henry's daughter Maud clash for the throne. Power-hungry nobles and zealous churchmen support each faction and the conflict escalates.
Ken Follett has been lauded for his detailed depiction of medieval life and I have to admit that his portrayal of that era was particularly well-done. Having said that, too often the author relies on massive info-dumps that bog down the narrative. Especially when Follett goes into the complex architectural elaborations, with mathematical and geometrical details. Reading this book, you will learn a whole lot about building cathedrals and how the process evolved over the centuries. Problem is, all this technical mumbo jumbo brings absolutely nothing to the tale. True, architectural innovations have an impact on the building of Kingsbridge cathedral. But I doubt that it was necessary to go into so much minute details to get the point across.
The weakest facet of this novel has to be the characterization. To say that it's poor would be an understatement. Characters are extremely black or white, with not a single shade of gray between them. Having a cast of such two-dimensional protagonists was a major disappointment and the main reason why I went through the entire book without caring for a single one of them. The good people are good, and they always find a way to persevere and go through hell, no matter how the odds are stacked against them. Of course, no matter how poor or uneducated, they are all beautiful, brilliant, righteous, and so on and so forth. Regardless of how painful the personal tragedies which afflict them, they always find the will to carry on and come out on top. Like good guys should. On the other hand, bad guys such as Waleran Bigod, Alfred Builder, and William Hamleigh are thoroughly despicable. Not one of them show any redeeming qualities and they become even more loathsome as the story progresses. And they're evil just for the sake of being evil. There is no depth whatsoever to any of them, which is why the characterization is so poor. Still, there are a few protagonists that are more interesting, chief among them Tom Builder, Prior Philip, Aliena, and Jack Jackson.
This was meant to be an epic historical novel. It is a dense and sprawling work of fiction, no question. It's huge, but it lacks vision. It lacks depth. It's big just for the sake of being big. The story did not dictate that this tale needed to be nearly a thousand pages long. Entire chapters were unnecessary and could have been excised. The rhythm often slows down to a crawl, while other portions of the book are rushed and fail to provide any emotional impact.
My principal gripe with The Pillars of the Earth was how everything was elaborately contrived. Everyone involved is somehow linked to one another, and it was just too much for me. There is intricate plotting, and then there is the cast of this novel. I didn't like how neatly every single storyline was wrapped up and got its own happy ending. It pushed the bounds of realism past their breaking point. And in the end, I guess that's why this book left me more or less indifferent.
Good for the beach or the morning commute. Nothing more.