Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Building a Plot within a Plot within a Plot

25. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

"The small boys came early to the hanging" is the captivating first line. Even though I decided I didn't like this book a few chapters in, I kept reading for nine hundred some pages. Follett is a "hook" writer, he draws you in with a provocative statement, shakes up the plot, and moves on to a different character to shake up the plot again. As far as scope and cast go, it greatly reminded me of a Michener novel, but without Michener's talent for intimate description.

I disliked most of the characters for large parts of the book. I've said before, the characters are always most important to me in the novel. If I can't find a character to love, the book won't be a favorite. What The Pillars of the Earth has going for it most are the time period and setting. Follett chose an interesting and unusual time to write about, 1135-1174. The Middle Ages in England, after William the Conqueror and before Richard the Lion Heart. Obviously, I have some familiarity with the time line, but not much, and only the sketchiest idea of how people lived back then. I felt Follett could have demonstrated more research into the time period, and I wasn't quite satisfied with his portrayal of society, but some of it did ring true. Back to the characters, I did feel that they responded to the brutal politics and social structures of their time. That was probably why they were so despicable!

The main characters include Prior Philip, prior of Kingsbridge, who wants to build a cathedral; Tom Builder, who dreams of building a cathedral; Tom Builder's children Alfred, Martha, and Jonathan; Tom Builder's second wife Ellen and stepson Jack; Aliena, disinherited daughter of the Earl of Shiring and her brother Richard; and William Hamleigh, the usurper Earl of Shiring and notorious villain.

There are others, but these are the characters from whose viewpoint the story (or, stories) take place. There is an overarching plot, the building of the Kingsbridge Cathedral, but many side stories and plot twists that are necessary to keep the reader's interest. Probably the most interesting, and repellant, parts are when Follett writes from the point of view of William Hamleigh, a cruel, sadistic man. I think he succeeds mostly in his portrayal of that character. That said, I think the characters are largely one-dimensional. Everyone has one driving force or interest, except Aliena, who has a few over the course of the novel. Aliena and Jack, a weird boy who grows into a passionate man, were probably my favorites. Prior Philip is the Good character, but he is too manipulative for my taste.

This book would probably be interesting to people who don't read much, it is attention-holding, and especially for mathematical or architectural buffs, there is a lot of architecture stuff and math discussed that I probably didn't "get." I wouldn't consider this literature, but it does fall into historical fiction, a genre I'm afraid is getting trashier and trashier.

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