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The Pillars of the Earth (thoughts)

February 22, 2008

UnreadI came to this one in a round about way.   It was recommended to me by one of the American guys who was studying abroad in Russian with me: he said it was about building a cathedral, and that it was really good.  So, a couple years later, when I discovered bookmooch, it was in the first batch that I got.  I was shocked to discover its size (973 pages in trade paperback), so it went on the shelf where it languished until I chose it for the Unread Authors Challenge back in November.  Then, it became an Oprah book and a sequel came out.  So when I finally picked it up a couple weeks ago (the challenge ends this month), I felt like I was coming to the party a bit late, with a less-than-stellar veggie tray or something.

 Within a few pages, I had forgotten to feel self-conscious, or really anything other than what the characters in the book were feeling.  Why?  Because Follett has done an incredible job bringing the Middle Ages (twelfth century, to be exact) alive!  But this isn’t just a book about the Middle Ages, or about building a cathedral.  This is a book that delves into the heart of what it is to be human, both the good and the bad.  I experienced terror, hopelessness, rage, triumph, love, hate-they’re all there.  This book is epic, the way that War and Peace was epic (although the writing style in the two could not be less similar).  And that’s the bottom line.

Of course, some of you may be wondering what the heck the book is about.  It takes place over about forty years in the twelfth century and centers around Kingsbridge and the process of building a cathedral at the monastary there.  Although there are many minor characters, the primary ones represent the key walks of life in the Middle Ages: religious, noble and common.  We get to know Philip, the prior who really is committed to God and wants to see this cathedral built in the face of strong opposition, Aliena, born to nobility who must figure out how to survive when all of her privileges are stripped away, William, the nobleman who believes that he has the right to anything or anyone he can get through violence, Tom, the master builder, and his stepson, Jack who has a natural ability to carve stones and design buildings matched only by his inability to keep his mouth shut.  Follett uses third person throughout, but he jumps between his characters so that the reader gets a fuller picture of what’s happening.  This isn’t really the kind of book that lends itself to a plot summary, but suffice it to say it follows the lives of all of these people and the ways in which they keep interacting.

While the ending of the book is very uplifting, there are many dark parts in the middle.  There’s more than one rape scene, which was difficult for me to handle, and honestly whenever William became the main focus I just started skimming, so that I could get the gist without having the specifics of the various atrocities he committs in my head.  People die, sometimes violently, and often times life just doesn’t seem fair.  However, there are beautiful passages to balance this out: several couples find real love, and Follett handles them all beautifully.  So don’t be scared off by the violence.

Really, there isn’t too much I can say about the book without giving things away; I didn’t know anything going into it, and I think that helped my enjoyment.  I was always on the edge of my seat, so to speak, wondering what would happen next.  These characters felt like real people, and pretty soon I was fully invested in their lives and terribly concerned that things wouldn’t work out right (which is why I did something I’ve never done before, and when I was 2/3 through looked up the plot summary on wikipedia to decide if I should keep reading).  I had the same experience I had with War and Peace, but the ending was more satisyfing.  This is one of those books that everyone should read (don’t be intimated by the length-it flies by)!  And I’m just going to leave it at that.

Favourite Passages
Having faith in God did not mean sitting back and doing nothing. It meant believing that you would find success if you did your best honestly and energetically. (417)

Instead of vanquishing an enemy with one tremendous blow of a magic sword, as the heor generally did in these stories, the squire fought desperate losing battles and won only by luck or ingenuity, generally escaping death by a hair. He was often scared by the enemies that he faced-unlike Charlemagne’s fearless knights-but he never turned back from his mission. All the same, his task, like his love, seemed hopeless.
Aliena found herself more captivated by the pluck of the squire than she had been by the might of his master. She chewed her knuckles in anxiety when he rode into enemy territory, gasped when a giant’s sword barely missed him, and sighed when he lay down his lonely head to sleep and dream of the faraway priness. His love for her seemed of a piece with his general indomitability. (546)

She looked at his young face, so full of concern and tenderness; and she remember why she had run away from everyone else and sought solitude here. She yearned to kiss him, and she saw the answering longing in his eyes. Every fiber of her body told her to thrown herself in his arms, but she knew what she had to do. She wanted to say I love you like a thunderstorm, like a lion, like a helpless rage; but instead she said: “I think I’m going to marry -.” (615)

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2008 7:29 am

    I really love your review style.

  2. February 22, 2008 7:49 am

    This is one of my favorite books of all time. I’m so glad you liked it! The sequel is equally good. I’ve “reviewed” that one on my blog. One of the things I love about both books is that you’re never really sure everything will be OK. You really, deeply care what happens and you’re holding your breath the whole time.

    Lezlie

  3. February 22, 2008 10:39 am

    This sounds excellent! It is now on my list. Thanks for a great review!

  4. trish permalink
    February 22, 2008 10:41 am

    I can’t wait to read this, especially after your review!!

  5. February 22, 2008 11:26 am

    I love that you loved Pillars! It’s fantastic!

    Great review by the way.

  6. February 22, 2008 11:33 am

    I think I’ll pass on this one. I really can’t handle rape scenes.

  7. February 22, 2008 1:29 pm

    I’m so glad you liked this book. I first read it for a class on Medieval history in undergraduate school, and I absolutely loved it. I know everyone has strong feelings one way or the other about Oprah books, but I’m glad she chose this one. It’s nice to see a quality book like this enjoy a resurgence of interest. I have The Known World but haven’t read it, yet.

  8. February 22, 2008 2:02 pm

    It’s an amazing book, isn’t it? When everyone was recommending it to me the year I read it (including my husband), I remember thinking, “A book about the building of a cathedral [which is how everyone described it]? How can that possibly be so good?” Then I started it and could barely tear myself away from it. You’ve captured it very well here. Such an interesting introduction to the real brutality of life in the Middle Ages, but also, as you say, such a great tale of human nature. Parts of it still haunt me.

  9. February 22, 2008 2:21 pm

    This sounds excellent! I had wondered about this one for awhile, but hadn’t really heard anything about it aside from “Oprah recommended it” which honestly just kinda turned me off :p I don’t know why I’m so turned off by the “oprah sticker”…she really has had some good selections. It’s a brain block I think. But I love these books that take you by surprise. Onto the list it goes!

  10. February 22, 2008 3:25 pm

    I gotta admit the synopsis (its about building a cathedral?) sounds a bit boring, but your review makes it sounds really interesting. I think my husband has this book. I’ll have to pick this one up!

  11. February 22, 2008 7:12 pm

    Marvelous review – I keep looking at this one, and admit I’m put off by the size…not so much the length of reading, but the actual physical size of holding it!

    After your review, I’m more inclined to give it a go. It seems to have everything – a good historical basis and the personal stories to go with.

  12. February 22, 2008 10:29 pm

    At the first Book Exchange I went to here in Korea, one of the guys running it (who I’d only met like 5 minutes before) actually put this book into my hands, wrapped my hands around the book and said emphatically, “Take this one. Read it. It’s a really good book.” That was a year ago, and I haven’t read it yet, but I also haven’t traded it off because it was such an intense way for a book to come into my collection. My interest was slightly piqued when Oprah picked it a few months later. Your review is the first inkling I’ve ever gotten about what the book is about, other than hearing that it’s set in the 12th century.

  13. February 23, 2008 7:26 am

    Care, you are so sweet. You made my day! Thanks!

    Lezlie, I went and looked at your review of the sequel, and it certainly does sound good. I was nervous that there was no way he could live up to this one in a sequel.

    JenClair, I’m just glad that I got you interested! :)

    Trish, thanks! Are you planning on reading it soon?

    Nik, thanks! And it certainly is fantastic.

    Janet, understandable-and there are so many other great, epic books out there. :)

    Lisa, sounds like you had a good history professor! I’ve noticed that, since Oprah brought her book club back, she tends to pick books that I really love (for instance, East of Eden and Anna Karenina, both of which I adore). I wish they just put a sticker on the book, though, instead of making that circle part of the cover. I really don’t like that circle, lol.

    Emily, I don’t know why everyone just describes it as a book about building a cathedral! It’s really about the people involved in building a cathedral, lol. I have a feeling I’ll be haunted as well.

    Chris, awesome! I’m not anti-Oprah in theory (and I love it when authors I love boost all of their sales), but I strongly prefer the covers that don’t have the Oprah seal on them. So I guess I’m a bit of a hypocrite…oh well!

    Kim, yes-do! It’s not about the cathedral-it’s about people and their lives. The cahtedral is more like what holds the different stories together than anything.

    RavenousReader, yeah-I had to mainly read this one in my lap (I had the trade paperback, so it stayed open on its own, which was nice), but it’s worth it!

    Bybee, that is intense, and it’s absolutely true. I don’t think I’ll ever forget any of the characters, so you should give it a go!

  14. February 23, 2008 12:34 pm

    I’ve heard a lot about this book, but, silly as this may sound, the idea of actually reading it hadn’t entered my mind. I am completely sold now, though. To the wishlist it goes. Thanks for the great review!

  15. February 23, 2008 2:49 pm

    This has been one of my beloved. I’ve got his latest book on the nigh-stand, but this one is worth re-reading. There is always a gleam of hope at any inferno situation–no matter how people were shaken to the core or how poor the morale was. It’s my comfort read. :)

  16. February 24, 2008 8:07 am

    Nymeth, glad I got it on your TBR list! I have the same reaction to some books that I’ve heard a lot about and then see in my library…”wait? I can read it?”

    Matt, I can totally see how this would be a comfort read, and it’s definitely worth rereading!

  17. February 25, 2008 12:16 am

    I was reading your review for this and thinking, ‘Ooh, I should read this! I LOVE the Middle Ages, anything with monks and knights errant and high court and all,’ and then as soon as you mentioned Philip the prior, something clicked and I remembered that I totally HAD read this before, ages ago, and I loved it so much. It was one of those books that you were so upset to come to the end of, because you were so invested in the characters and the story that you wanted to keep hanging out with them. That is, quite possibly, the best sense I can leave a book with, and it only really comes with loooooooong books (see: the Time Traveller’s Wife) or with serieses. Maybe I’ll read this again sometimes.

  18. April 3, 2009 2:12 pm

    Eva, I just read this because of your review and I loved it! Thanks for the great review! I agree that the rape scenes were hard to get through and I was always glad when it shifted focus from William.

    raych, I agree, I didn’t want the book to end!

Trackbacks

  1. It’s that time: the 2008 Reading Wrap-Up « A Striped Armchair
  2. The Literary Horizon: The Pillars of the Earth, Dreaming the Eagle « The Literary Omnivore
  3. Review: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett | Good Books And Good Wine
  4. The Literary Horizon: The Game of Kings, The Pillars of the Earth « The Literary Omnivore

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