Ken Follett would be the first to tell you that The Pillars of the Earth, a novel set during the construction of a Gothic cathedral, is not a book he was expected to write. The 2002 edition begins with a new preface by the author, in which Follett explains that he began reading about cathedrals so that he could better describe the London scenery in his novels. He found the laborious, expensive process of building churches fascinating, but it wasn’t until he stepped into Peterborough Cathedral that he was, in his words, “enraptured.” Follett began a novel set during the building of a cathedral, but he wasn’t sophisticated enough to write a long book interweaving history, religion, human relationships, church architecture, politics, and science. He put the project aside and wrote a thriller called Eye of the Needle about a German spy in wartime England; it was his first bestseller, and he soon earned a reputation for fast-paced thrillers with strong characters and lots of action.
In a way, The Pillars of the Earth is a very different book from Follett’s thrillers. At 976 pages, the first thing you notice is that this book is big. The central characters include monks and bishops, and most of the story takes place in or near a cathedral. On the other hand, the book is a true adventure. It begins with a mystery: who is the strange-looking, red-haired man swinging at the end of a noose? And what about the golden-eyed woman who curses the people responsible for the hanging?
The Pillars of the Earth follows Tom Builder and his family on his quest to be the master builder of a cathedral. The family makes its way to Kingsbridge, in search of work, and is welcomed into the monastery by Prior Phillip. When the town’s church burns down, the family stays to begin work on a new cathedral and is drawn into local and national politics. A parallel series of events brings the beautiful Aliena and her brother Richard, children of the deposed earl, into the lives of Kingsbridge Priory, where they try to make a living, take revenge on the evil William Hamleigh, and fulfill a vow they made to their dying father. The puzzle set out in the first few pages of the book is intricately connected to the lives of these characters, and the resolution doesn’t disappoint.
It’s no surprise to learn that Ken Follett’s favorite dead author is Jane Austen. His women are strong and crafty, and relationships are essential to the book. Little details envelop us in the lives of medieval people, whether they are travelers in the forest looking for work or earls living in castles. Drawings on the part openers show the progress of the cathedral—a nice visual element for readers who are following complex building techniques mainly through the text.
Only a few things detracted from my thorough enjoyment of The Pillars of the Earth. Follett built suspense by alternating peace and prosperity with raids and violence, but that plot device eventually became repetitive. The conversations and behavior sometimes felt too modern for the twelfth century, especially the sexual and political decision-making of the main female characters. If you have a weak stomach, some of the scenes of sexual violence can be quite graphic. However, these elements do help make the characters feel familiar to modern readers.
It’s no wonder that Oprah picked this exciting, fast-paced, richly detailed, intricately plotted bestseller for her book club. Tune in to her show on January 30 for an interview with author Ken Follett.