PHEW!!! Oh my! I just finished The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Nine hundred and seventy-three pages long, and I felt every single one! I need to catch my breath…
Okay, the most interesting thing about the book was not in the story at all, but in its introduction, or rather, its “Preface,” also written by Ken Follett. He begins by acknowledging that he is better known as a thriller writer, and I have read and enjoyed several of his international spy-type novels (The Eye of the Needle, The Key to Rebecca). This was nothing like those.
He goes on to write that, “[i]n the book business, when you have had a success, the smart thing to do is write the same sort of thing once a year for the rest of your life…I should not have risked my reputation by writing something out of character and overambitious.” Which leads me to ask the (I think) obvious question, “so why did you?” And here, almost a thousand pages later, I have to tell you: I have no idea.
But there is more. He goes on to say that he does not believe in God, and is not what one would call a “spiritual person.” So why write this magnum opus about bishops and monks and the struggle to basically build the biggest, most beautiful church in all of England, presumably in honor of this God that he himself does not believe in? Again, I have no idea.
According to his agent, Follett’s biggest problem as a writer is that he is not a “tortured soul.” Give me these problems!
In terms of length, the book is unquestionably ambitious. Follett claims he did not plan a “difficult” book. I don’t know if I’m convinced. To me it reads like a book trying a little bit too hard to be an epic masterpiece. For me, it lands somewhere around “it wasn’t that bad.”
The book was obviously well researched, and there is an excruciating amount of detail about the micro-specifics of cathedral building/design, as well as 12th century politics and culture. I have to confess, I breezed straight over most of this stuff. Sorry Mr. Follett, and your obviously dedicated research team. But I just couldn’t take it after a while.
The story was fine, the characters were fine, I didn’t love or relate to anybody. There was a lot more sex than you would typically find in a book from this genre, but thank goodness for it, otherwise I may have slipped into a coma.
There were also some rather chauvinistic/misogynistic/pro-violence-to-women non-subtleties that I didn’t particularly enjoy. Maybe it was a true-ish depiction of the attitudes of the time, but it left me feeling kind of queasy.
The language itself was accessible, but maybe too much so. I like to stretch myself a little. It came off feeling kind of dumbed down.
I know it took a lot of work to write, and a lot of time, and it was really long, and I’m not trying to take anything away from that. But it was also a huge investment of my time and effort to consume, and if I had it to do over again, I may well have read 973 pages of something else. I know, I know, those who can, do, and blah, blah, blah, but my fancy was not here tickled. Sorry Ken.