Way way backlist book The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is an stirring historical fiction novel. It evokes a variety of emotion from the reader, as its characters go through many decades of life in Middle Ages England. But I’ll admit some of my emotions were frustration with Follett’s distinctly 1980s sensibilities about women.
Although I read many of Follett’s thrillers back in the day, I haven’t picked up his Kingsbridge trilogy, of which this is the first book. The Great American Read from PBS pushed it towards my plate. If it made it onto the Top 100 Books list, it must be great. Right? As I also learned, it’s still Follett’s bestselling book.
Pillars follows a variety of characters over several decades in the 1100s. The prior who wants to see his monastery become the home to a great cathedral. The master stone mason who’s always dreamed of building a cathedral. The young noblewoman who survives the ups and downs of her family’s fortunes. And a woman living in the forest, whose survival instincts are considered suspect. Plus the nasty young nobleman who doesn’t seem to have a single redeeming quality.
This a violent, corrupt, and ruthless time in history. So you must be prepared for mayhem, which Follett describes in detail. It’s a male-centric time and book, although he does write some strong female characters.
It’s also very clear that Follett has studied cathedrals. He gives extremely detailed structural information, but also writes extensively about how they were funded. That funding process also gives you some strong insight into the corruption of the Middle Ages Church.
The Pillars of the Earth is a rousing story. Follett ties many disparate characters together, and keeps their narrative threads untangled. In 750+ pages I never felt that the story lagged or got side tracked. I did have a hard time picturing the myriad architectural details, probably because it’s been years since I’ve visited a cathedral.
I was underwhelmed by the actual writing style, though. Whether Follett is discussing soaring clerestories or intense battles, he’s just so matter-of-fact. His dialogue bordered on wooden quite a lot as well.
And don’t get me started on his misogynistic need to discuss every rape in near clinical detail. If that’s a trigger for you, this is not your kind of book. For me, I just got angry about how women so often get the short end of history.
That said, I truly appreciated and enjoyed one particular female character. She goes through a huge amount of trauma. While I thought Follett also missed the mark in his descriptions of her experience, he did manage to make her a fierce survivor. Her triumphs meant more to me than all the male bravado and conniving combined!
I’m giving Pillars three stars out of five. It doesn’t get my vote for “favorite book,” or anything remotely close. But I can see why people love it. And it was entertaining, in a Middle Ages kind of way.