This book has been out for over 20 years, but for some reason it seems like a couple of years ago everyone I knew was reading it and raving about it. Then it was made into a miniseries which there didn’t seem to be as much raving about, but anyway, it’s been brought to my attention and I kept putting off reading it. I don’t know why, since I love historical fiction and I did like (though didn’t love) Follett’s WWI novel Fall of Giants. But for whatever reason, I didn’t get around to reading Pillars of the Earth until this summer.
As with Fall of Giants, I liked it but didn’t love it. There’s something about Follett’s writing that just skims the surface of historical authenticity — he gets the window-dressing right but I sometimes think he gets attitudes and outlooks wrong. There was at least one major subplot of this story that didn’t work at all for me — I kept thinking, “There’s no WAY that would have happened in that era!” I could be wrong, but so could Follett. Also, I find his characterization a bit thin — his characters are lively and varied, but somewhat one-dimensional. Bad guys are just bad guys and always will be, good guys are pretty much good guys, etc.
That said, there’s a lot to like here if you like big sprawling historicals. It’s set during the period of twelfth-century English civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud, and while I’ve read accounts of what the main royal characters were up to during this period (I highly recommend Sharon Kay Penman’s When Christ and His Saints Slept) I’ve never read a book that shows so vividly how that conflict affected ordinary people, how the constant upheaval and lawlessness made an already-difficult life even more dangerous and desperate for the poor. At the centre of The Pillars of the Earth is the decades-long process of building a great cathedral (located at the fictional Kingsbridge) and Follett does a great job of showing all aspects of this complex process, from the intricate calculations required of a master builder who might not even be able to read and write, to the political machinations between prior, bishop and baron that allow or impede the building process. It’s a big, well-populated story, and if you’re not too picky about your historical fiction or about deep, subtle characterization, you should enjoy it. I did — with reservations, but I did enjoy it.