The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follet, 1989) is a novel about the building of a cathedral in the 12th century in England. The author uses this physical structure to center the novel's diverse characters, who include artisans, peasants, priests, monks, bishops, landowners, lords, and others. I appreciated this strategy for how it allowed Follet to write a story set in the 12th century with such a wide-ranging perspective. Without something like building a cathedral, most of those kinds of characters wouldn't have moved in the same spheres, and thus the story would have been solely about monks, peasants, or lords.
The story is set in a fictional town, but takes place during the Anarchy, the period in English history between the death of the King Henry I's only legitimate son and the murder of Thomas Becket. The events in English monarchical history come into occasional contact with the events and characters in the novel, eventually proving to be the major point on which the novel turns.
The novel is full of details about life in 12th century Europe, which I loved. Last year I read A Distant Mirror (a non-fiction account of life in 14th century Europe), and the parts I enjoyed the most were the details about life: what people ate, what they wore, their holidays, etc. Anyway, The Pillars of the Earth seems to be very well-researched in its attention to details in the lives of monks, peasants, and lords.
The intertwined stories were also fun to read: love stories, tragedy, palace intrigue, mysteries, and revenge are all present. This novel is long, but it was a fast read. In fact, I couldn't put it down. I was really drawn in by the humanity in the stories that revolved around the building of this cathedral.
The author conceived of this book as being primarily about cathedral-building, and some of the book's most vivid details are about architecture and building strategies. In fact, one of the characters travels to continental Europe and experiencing a life-changing revelation when he sees the innovations in cathedral architecture in France.
I admit, though, that some of the architectural details got a little beyond me, and I skimmed some of those sections. One of the main characters, the cathedral builder, waxes poetic in his love of architectural design, and the descriptions of the various cathedrals in the book go a little over my head. But I did appreciate them as a way to build the characters.
There was a lot of violence in this book, reflective of life at that time, I'm sure. The main bad guy just seems to hang around forever, since the book spans a lot of time. The bad guy goes from being a bad teenage boy, to a really bad man, to a tired but still bad old man. And he's still the bad guy. This thread in the book was kind of exhausting because his threat was constant throughout the book. He harasses the other characters throughout the long, long novel, and sometimes I wanted to just clip him out of the story. Just because I was sick of him cropping up. But I digress. The violence was pretty graphic and kind of disturbing: the depiction of a rape really stuck with me, which I didn't really want.
Overall, though, this was a really engaging novel, especially if you have any interest in European history or architecture.
Recommended if you have lots of time!
[I did watch the first disc in the TV miniseries adaptation of this novel. I enjoyed the actors and the production seemed to be good, but having just read the book, I couldn't handle the elimination of so many details. Perhaps if I watched it again later, I could appreciate the TV series as a stand-alone item, without constantly saying to myself, "Well, that's not how it was in the book!"]