Michael's Reviews > The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
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's review
Jan 09, 09

it was amazing
Read in January, 2009

The duck swallows the worm, the fox kills the duck, the men shoot the fox, and the devil hunts the men.
-William Hamleigh, The Pillars of the Earth

This is probably the fifth review I've started for The Pillars of the Earth. The first thing you'll notice is that it's a long read, 900+ pages. Whenever I've attacked a book with similar length I've usually felt that the author was trying to impress me with his big phallic novel, as though the book were really about the size of the book and his ability to produce such an enormous work. This is not true with Pillars.... It starts where it should start, ands where it should end, and everything that happens in between is meaningful.

I have to admit that I bought Pillars... without really knowing anything about it. I knew Ken Follett was an author of books my dad read on planes but that was about it. I had no idea that Pillars... was an Oprah Book Club selection, but found that out shortly after I purchased it (and then I realized that that was the reason Pillars... was front and center when I was browsing.

I bought it because the concept intrigued me. I'm a history dork and a novel structured around the building of a 12th century cathedral is in my wheelhouse. But for the first eighth of the book or so I kept hearing Oprah and my dad talking and making feel as though I shouldn't like the book because I generally don't like what they like. In fact, for a month or so I let their imaginary voices talk me out of reading it altogether and I simply put it down and left it.

After the month, though, I realized that if I didn't pick it up right then I'd lose the story and never read it. So I put my preconceptions out of my head and dug in. And wow, how I was rewarded.

Pillars... doesn't strike me as a book that I'd have been assigned to read in grad school. It's not a heavily intellectual treatise about the inequities of power, or distribution of wealth or something. It's a novel, a story, one well-told. Actually it's many stories that weave in and out of each other. Each story is gripping in its own peculiar way.

One of the most striking aspects about Pillars... is that Follett masterfully heightens the tension and conflict for so long. 900 pages is a really long time to build suspense and he pulls it off on nearly every page. There are so many defeats, victories, and reversals of fortune that you never feel stable, or bored. If a character gets sick you feel there's an equal chance that that character will die, or get better with no affect to the story, or cause a plague that wipes out five more characters. You just don't know. There were many moments when a character's actions made me gasp, sometimes because I was shocked at their malevolence, sometimes because I was shocked at their fate, and sometimes because I was truly happy for them.

And there are some truly malevolent characters. Loathsome in the extreme. It's also surprising how Follett was able to create such truly horrible people without making them cartoonish, or like that evil guy from silent movies who always tied the heroine to the train tracks. They felt real, despicable, but real.

But what knocked my rating up from 4 to 5 stars was that when I'd finished reading, I felt like I'd just read a really gripping best seller that actually meant something. After going all that way when I finally got to the destination there was really something there. It was a good trip that was worth the journey.

And one final thought, after putting Pillars... down for a month (or longer) when I finally picked it up again, I could barely put it down again. I was riveted, edge of my seat riveted.

(below were my initial impressions of the book as I began reading it.)

I just started this the other day. It's not bad, some of the writing is entirely gripping and it's such a monumental effort that there's huge promise. But so far there's been a fair amount of sex and struggles of desire. Normally I'm all about sex and struggling with desire, but this comes across as titillating for an older generation. Like maybe your parents, or people who watch JAG would find it provocative. More later.


Okay, so I'm several chapters away from the clumsy sex of the opening chapter. Follet, not surprising, is significantly more interesting when he's weaving his narrative around political intrigue. Significantly. But the point isn't just to dwell in the tower with the power brokers, he wants to be in the dirt with the little people too. And showing how they are connected brings a power to the book because of the way they are handled. I still find the sexuality to be stilted and overwrought, but I'm fascinated by the grand human drama he's able to tease out with from the delicate strands of seemingly small interactions and decisions. I've still got over half a book to read though.


It's not good that I haven't touched it in several days is it? I just can't get into this book as much as I'd like to.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Shari (new)

Shari Sharon's review of Mike's review:

Mike starts off slow, clearly dealing with the cerebral leftovers of several starts-and-stops we aren't privy to (thank heavens). But then he picks up steam, clearly hitting his stride as his enthusiasm for the topic takes over his desire to somehow summarize Follett's...masterpiece? Mike thinks it may be possible.

On an editorial note, Mike has thoughtfully left his previous comments of the book available, to better give the readers of his review a sense of the journey he's taken.

I give this review four stars.

Michael Sharon's review of Mike's review begins where so many others have left off, at the start. She immediately attacks Mike, as she often will, before gently praising his somewhat desultory treatment of the topic. She points out flaws and strengths alike. I give her review of the review a thumbs up. Read her review, you won't be disappointed.

Amarice Wow, I loved your review! Thank you for explainning all of KP's haters (as hard tp imagine as it sounds, yeah) why POE is such a fantastic novella, thank you!
Personally, I liked the review, and the quote over there from the book. In this book there are so many hidden hints and says that first are unnoticed and even a little bit out of connection, but then you keep reading and after a couple of hundereds pages later - you understand that everything that had been said is absolutley, 100% precent true, and you extremly appreciate KP for that. He is an amazing novelist, I love his work and looking forward to read Fall of the Giants. It amazing how things starts to clarify out as you read an historical fictionary book.. I mean, history ALWAYS reapets itself, right? In different forms and under different circumstances - yet it still repeats itself, and has the same results !

message 4: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim "a novel structured around the building of a 12th century cathedral is in my wheelhouse"

Since you're a history guy, and you liked Pillars - you will really like the sequel - World Without End.

The great is the enemy of the good. Because of a few great historical novels, which I'll list below, I give Pillars 4-stars.

The 5-star historical novel list (see my capsule reviews on this site):

An Instance of the Fingerpost
The Source

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