Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

Well, Kittens, I know that some of you have been anxiously awaiting my opinion of this book, this true chunkster, this 973-page monstrosity that I thought I'd never finish.

So here it is.

Simply put, it is an amazing book. The characters really stay with you. There are many separate plot lines that are seemingly complex, but they all weave together as the novel progresses. I will try to separate them all as best as I can, without revealing too much information that may spoil the book for those who plan to read it.
  • Tom Builder is a mason who is building a castle for Percy Hamleigh's son, William, and his intended bride, Lady Aliena, daughter of the Earl Bartholomew, who is the earl of Shiring. Aliena has intense hatred for William and rejects his proposal. William halts construction on his castle, leaving Tom out of work. William also plots revenge by planning to raid Earl Bartholomew's castle and seizing the earldom from him.
  • Tom, his pregnant wife Agnes, and their two children, Alfred and Martha, are left destitute and spend many days of hardship in the forest. Agnes dies while giving birth to their third child, a boy.
  • This infant is found by the brother of the prior of Kingsbridge, who brings the boy to the priory. The prior, Philip, decides to raise the child as if he were his own.
  • Days pass, and Tom and his children arrive in Kingsbridge. Tom is looking for work.
  • During their stay in the forest, Tom and his family are joined by a woman named Ellen and her son, Jack. Alfred and Jack immediately hate each other. This figures into the novel much later.
  • Kingsbridge is granted permission to construct a cathedral. Tom is appointed master builder.
  • William Hamleigh seizes the earldom, leaving Aliena and her brother, Richard, destitute and searching the county for work.
  • Aliena and Richard find their father imprisoned and dying. Before they leave him, their father makes them take an oath: they must work together to make Richard the rightful earl of Shiring, and restore the earldom to their family.
  • With their new oath in mind, Aliena and Richard continue to look for work. Aliena eventually becomes a wool merchant, and Prior Philip of Kingsbridge purchases her first batch. She and Richard eventually relocate to Kingsbridge.

I'm going to stop there. I've highlighted most of the main characters. Now for the setting: this novel is set in 12th century England, between the time of the White Ship disaster and the murder of Thomas Becket. (Thanks to that bastion of journalistic integrity, Wikipedia, for the help in the research.) Ken Follett was absolutely meticulous in his research. He wrote, with amazing detail, the fight over the kingship between Maud and Stephen, the conflicts between Becket and king Henry II, and skillfully weaved all of this historical material into the plotlines. More importantly, he was able to blend fiction with history so well, you can't tell who the fictional characters are at times.

Ken Follett is known for his suspense novels, and he is wonderful at keeping the suspense in this book. You never know when and where a plot will twist. You never know when a seemingly insignificant detail will become a major factor in the story. This is what kept the pages turning for me. For example, late in the novel, Jack, Ellen's son, is living in France and is helping to build the cathedral at Saint-Denis. Here he discovers a new building technique: pointed, as opposed to rounded, arches. Inspired, he decides to bring this knowledge back to Kingsbridge. (How he got to France is another story in and of its own). Keep in mind that this was a huge revolution in church construction at that point in time.

The novel is primarily about the construction of a cathedral, but for me, it was much, much more than that. It is an amazing account of the complex relationship between church and state in England. It profiles all of the power plays, brokerages, and wheeling and dealing that were involved in getting people what they wanted. The relationship between William Hamleigh and Bishop Waleran is particularly interesting when it comes to this. Add Prior Philip to the mix and the equation becomes especially interesting.

This book took me almost a month to read. To be honest with you, I started reading it mid-February and set it aside for about a week. I had gotten up to 150 pages when I did, because A) I was intimidated by the length of the book, since I had not read any book that big before, B) it was a little slow to establish itself, and C) I was intimidated by the length of the book. I was able to get past all of these intimidations and read all the way through in about two and a half weeks, once I picked up the book again. There are some parts where you have to put it down for a little while to reflect on what you've read, but there are more parts where you can just plow right through.

I will admit that this book may have set me back a little bit on some of my reading challenges, but it was totally worth it. This is one of the most amazing books I've ever read, and I can't wait to reread it. In the meantime, though, I'm going to pick up the sequel, World Without End, and see how that goes.

If you want to read this book, though, by all means, do so! And don't hesitate! It's worth it, it's worth it, it's worth it. I think I may just get a copy for myself!

This is the latest entry in the following reading challenges: the 100+ Reading Challenge, the Chunkster Challenge, the A to Z Challenge, and the Support Your Local Library Challenge. Click on the buttons in the sidebars for the latest in all of these challenges!


Mrs Cooper said...

You are amazing. I love a good novel and one of these days I would love to get back into reading. Until then, I"m gonna count on you.

blueviolet said...

970 pages is so completely intimidating! A month of reading, wow. I'm glad to hear it was well worth it.

septembermom said...

Thanks for this thorough review. I think I'll add this one to my reading list. I'm interested in that time period in English history so I think I'll take this challenge too:)

Yaya said...

I do not know if I would able to read a book that long! How on earth did you read it so fast??

pam said...

I think I would really enjoy this book. It has a lot of the aspects I like in a book. Thanks!

Jenners said...

Congrats to you! I know this was HUGE! And you did a good job summing it up -- not an easy task. I remember having to literally be harassed into reading this book by a friend of mine -- I did NOT want to read it, it just seemed to big and, frankly, the subject matter was of little interest. But once you get going, it is addictive. And you are right -- I forgot how much stuff happens and how things turn on a dime. Good job ... now take a nice long break and read some short books! : )

Love the pretty spring look to your blog!

Serena said...

I don't think I can get into another tome right now, but this has gotten some great reviews. Maybe when I've had time to cool down from the 500+ books I have had to read in the last couple of months.