The Pillars of the Earth

pillarsSome historical fiction is literature. It pulls you into another world, immerses you into the lives of people whose backgrounds and ideals are entirely different from your own. It surprises you with the twists and turns characters’ lives take. And it’s usually written by Dorothy Dunnett.

And then there’s historitrash. It immerses you into the lives of people whose backgrounds are entirely different from your own but whose values are oddly familiar. It usually offers dastardly villians, noble heroes, and fair but feisty maidens who act according to the pattern set out for them. It might be written by, say, Philippa Gregory.

Although I have a strong preference for the more literary type of historical fiction, there’s a place for historitrash in my reading diet. But it has to be good historitrash. It has to offer some surprises, include some three-dimensional characters who don’t seem too modern, and demonstrate that the author has done some solid research. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is my idea of good historitrash. Much too soapy to be great literature, but it’s rip-snortingly good, smart reading.

So where does Ken Follett’s wildly popular novel, The Pillars of the Earth, fall? At first, I had hopes that it might be on the literary side. First of all, it takes place in the 12th century and involves the building of a cathedral. Not a Tudor queen in sight. The characters initally seem promising. Prior Philip is a monk who is (brace yourself) in no way sexually deviant; in fact, he’s a contented celibate. Early on, we meet Tom Builder and his wife Agnes. Tom’s greatest ambition is to be a master builder of a great cathedral, but because of his family’s abject poverty Tom must make a horrible decision that goes against anything we are taught today but that might, just might, be the only tragic alternative for a family living in his time. Yes! This is a whole other world! The characters do have annnoyingly modern speech patterns, but that’s better than a bad attempt at 12th-century English. And if it helps readers get a better sense of who the characters are, fine.

Unfortunately, as the book goes on, the chracters become more predictable and one-dimensional. The two main women are (surprise, surprise) spunky and independent—and literate. Really? In 12th-century England? Ok, there were some literate women in those days (Hildegard of Bingen, for example), so I can cope. I can also mostly cope with the too-evil-to-be-believed villians. I did learn to skim whenever William came on the scene. Brutalizing women turns William on, and Follett subjects his readers to pages of William’s sexual fantasies, both those in his head and those he acts upon. He’s a bad, bad, bad, man. I get it. I don’t want every single gory detail. (And don’t get me started on the over-the-top descriptions of good sex.)

But still, I can forgive all this if Follett delivers a good story. And he can do that. He often does. There were times when I was thoroughly engrossed in the story. But the pattern of characters facing a challenge, triumphing over it, only to be met by another challenge that they then triumph over got old. What made it even worse is Follett’s overexplaining. He tells us exactly what his characters are thinking before, during, and after any major, or not-so-major encounter. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if the characters’ thoughts weren’t so obvious.

Put simply, this book does not need to be 973 pages long. At about halfway in, I was ready to be done. At 750 pages, I was hurling the book across the room. If this weren’t for my book club, I probably would have hurled it out the door. Some judicious cutting would have given readers 500-600 of thumping good historitrash. Too bad I had to wade through 400 pages of dreck to find it.


I’m counting this as my 4th book for the Read Your Own Books Challenge (26 to go) and my 4th book for the New Author Challenge (21 to go).

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15 Responses to The Pillars of the Earth

  1. carolyn says:

    Glad to see someone agrees with me. This was the only book selected by my club last year that I didn’t finish. I am in no way a prudish reader, but I literally felt nauseous reading some of the scenes with William. Perhaps if it seemed to flesh out the characters more I could have endured it, but it just seemed a prurient indulgence on Follett’s part. It seemed to be way over the top. For that matter, characters in this book are black or white; they’re good or they’re bad. The book is also filled with lots of insightful prose along the lines of, “She smiled; she was happy.” “He frowned. He was unhappy.” Of course, I didn’t finish it, so perhaps somewhere around page 500 it took a turn for the better.

  2. Katherine says:

    I’ve read this book twice. The first time, I was a teenager and liked it. I read it again a few years ago and found that it wasn’t as good as I’d remembered. I agree with you about the gratuitous sex/ rape scenes–really, were they necessary? Well, maybe if you’re a horny teenage boy. There are also a large number of anachronisms. There’s definitely a good story there, and I enjoyed some of the descriptions of the building of the cathedral.

    I definitely agree with you about the historitrash bit–Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s books aren’t “Great Literature” by any stretch of the imagination, but she knows how to tell a good story!

  3. Matt says:

    I had second doubt about this book when my friend recommended it to me. I thought it was some clap-trap of a pop fiction. But I was wrong. Thirty pages into his thoughtful prose I was hooked. It’s a very poignant and despondent read at times but the nuanced historical details and etched characterization, and the impetus to do justice of all the heinous, ruthless, and insidious deeds to which Kingsbridge had been subjected over decades make it an incredible page turner.

  4. Teresa says:

    Carolyn: Things didn’t really turn around much after page 500. The sex scenes went from being over-the-top violent to over-the top, ummm, well, just over-the-top happy. And I agree about the writing and some of the characterization. There were a couple of people who were a little ambiguous, but it seemed that they shifted to serve the story, not because they were coherently written people.

    Katherine: Yeah, there is a really good story here, and parts (the cathedral parts) were really interesting. And I don’t mind a little sex, but I think I would have liked every sex scene, rape or not, to be half as long. I’m now reading The Oak Apple and realizing that C H-E is and even better storyteller than I had previously thought.

    Matt: It sound like we had opposite experiences because I was really jazzed about reading this and ended up disappointed. I do agree with you about the historical detail, much of which was fascinating, and the pursuit of justice for the town, because even when I was frustrated with the writing, I did want to see this little town succeed.

  5. Amanda says:

    Oh I’m so glad someone else found this book to be as unappealing as I did. I read it a long while back and just did not like it. How dissapointing. I love you r “historitrash” great! Thanks!

  6. sagustocox says:

    wow, thanks for an honest review…I hate when the bad points are hammered at you…especially when it involves brutal sexual scenes. I had only heard of this book through Oprah’s Book Club, who raved about the book.

    Its good to see another perspective since this book is really long, and I tend to give up on really long books if I am not totally absorbed in them.

  7. Teresa says:

    sagustcox: You know, if this book were shorter, I would have liked it a lot more. The flaws only started to annoy me at about page 450; until then, I was entertained. But a book that’s pushing 1,000 pages ought to be really good to make it worth the effort, and this one just isn’t.

  8. Care says:

    uh oh, I’m at page 500 and was starting to think the same things you cite here. and I don’t know why I sought out your review but I can tell I might now give up.

  9. maureen says:

    I disagree.

  10. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: The Pillars of the Earth, Dreaming the Eagle « The Literary Omnivore

  11. I so agree with you! I am reading it for my book club and am now around 600 pages in. I want to hurl it across the room!! I am finding it offensive. The rape scenes are bordering on perverse. The story would leave you to believe men in the middle ages spent most of their time lusting after women (and getting erections at the sight of them). I am sure the historical value of this book is dubious at best. As for the characterization – it’s completely one dimensional. This book appeals to the Dan Brown crowd I am afraid. Not that I am a literary snob or anything….

  12. garrett says:

    I feel that most of you posting negative comments are jealous, failed literarians yourself. Yes, I think I made up that word. “Pillars” was a great book! My favorite, actually. The book became so alive for me. I feel that after reading it the memories of it became so real, like from my own life. What are you comparing it to anyways? The tension between Jack and Aliena was perfect and you were always cheering for them to be together the whole way. You probably critized the Da Vinci Code, too. At least be thankful for learning and little bit of history.

  13. Pingback: #74 – The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett « Let's eat, Grandpa! Let's eat Grandpa! (Punctuation saves lives.)

  14. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: The Game of Kings, The Pillars of the Earth « The Literary Omnivore

  15. Yay! I just finished Follett’s “Fall of Giants” (well, I guess you could say ‘finished’ since I skimmed the last 1/3)… (as my intro to this author…) and thought, “I am not even going to review this”. Out of curiosity checked your review of this one. So happy to see someone call it like it is! I like good fiction. I like good historical fiction. I even like historical romance! but, this author seems so focused on interspersing history with continual sexual drama (each character had their own thing…) it just got a bit tiresome….

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