The Pillars of the Earth (1989) by Ken Follett is a pretty large undertaking—almost 1,000 pages of history and drama—focused on building a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge in the 12th Centruy. Not only was it on Oprah’s book list, but it’s been adapted for television as well. I was expecting good things from this book, and I found it to be a quick and engaging read. However, as much as the beginning intrigued me, I thought the ending dragged on as the story became repetitive and the characters more unbelievable. Follett seemed very focused on making sure that this beautiful, new style of cathedral was built. And he forced his characters to fit that plot line. Unfortunately for me, I was much more interested in the characters than the cathedral. What could have been a fascinating glimpse into the lives, history, politics and religion of the middle ages turned into something a little more mundane in the end.
The Pillars of the Earth starts out both exciting and mysterious, with a number of fascinating characters. Tom is a master builder looking for work with his family. His wife is pregnant and his family is starving as they roam around the countryside with no help in sight. Ellen is a mysterious, “witch-like” woman who lives in the forest with her son, Jack. Ellen is one of the few people who know exactly what happened to Jack’s father. Ariana and her brother Richard are the children of an earl when their land is attacked and their father killed. Ariana is left beaten and broken with nothing. William Hamleigh is a vicious and sadistic young man who makes a good villian for the book. And speaking of villians, Waleron is an entirely corrupt and power hungry religious figure who manages to affect the lives of all the characters.
Like I mentioned earlier, these storylines and characters initially caught my attention. The danger and bleakness they were struggling with as well as the themes of power, religion, and corruption kept the story exciting. My disappointment with the book came later. ***SPOILER*** For instance, Follett created Ariana as an intelligent, creative, stubborn, and free-thinking woman. Not only was she one of a very few businesswomen of that time, but she thrived. Starting with nothing, she created a great life for herself. Yet I’m supposed to believe that Ariana would give up on herself, disregard the man she loves and marry a man she detests? And when she conveniently realizes her mistake once her true love goes wandering about the European continent, she decides to leave her baby and follow him? It’s not until the baby’ grandmother suggests taking the baby with her that she thinks, “Oh, okay, I’ll take my baby with me.” Ariana begins the novel as one of the most intelligent and decisive characters within, but halfway through the novel she loses all of her willpower and becomes a pawn to Follett’s plotline. It was really frustrating to read.
Besides my problems with some of the actions of the main characters, the longer the book went on, the more repetitive it became. The building of the cathedral took a very long time, so Follett required a story that filled many years. Unfortunately, this made me feel like I was reading the same story of destruction and rebuilding over and over again. I didn’t know how many times William Hamleigh could destroy Ariana’s life, but apparently it was a lot. This weakness turned the book from a classic that I could remember for a long time into just another sometimes thrilling, interesting book. It’s probably worth reading, if you’ve the inclination, but it’s not a book that I would rave about.