Two Book Reviews

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

I finally finished reading this behemoth of a book this weekend, after several months’ labor. And no, it didn’t take me so long to finish because of the length of the book; I could only bear to read it for so long before getting bored or annoyed, and putting it down to go knit or watch a movie or something. It’s sad, because I love the time period (12th century England) and the subject matter (the building of a Gothic cathedral over almost 4 decades); but I found Follett’s tone frequently condescending, and his characters and conflicts one-dimensional. His villains are almost cartoonish in their single-minded desire to ruin and/or kill the “do-gooders”; his protagonists, while slightly more complex emotionally, nevertheless change very little over the course of decades. As long as the book is, one would think Follett could spend more time showing his characters’ emotions and motivations through action and dialogue; instead, he often states bluntly what they are feeling, which over-simplifies them, and makes me, the reader, feel somewhat cheated. I also don’t appreciate getting hammered with reminders of events from the characters’ pasts, when they were major events in the book. My memory (and, I like to think, that of most people) is not that short. It reminded me of some of those annoying reality shows that play flashbacks of things that had aired just a few minutes previously.

The plot is more of the same. The protagonists attempt to build a cathedral, while the villains attempt to thwart their every effort at success and prosperity. And you know that every time the villains attempt or manage to perpetrate some misdeed–preventing the use of a quarry, burning the cathedral’s village and market, etc. etc.–the protagonists will come up with an idea either to thwart the attack or rise from the ashes better off than before, all without sinking to the level of their enemies. This sort of plot device works reasonably well in a shorter novel, but it happens so repeatedly in The Pillars of the Earth that there is no tension in the conflict, because you immediately anticipate the outcome.

So, sadly, not a great effort. I understand Ken Follett typically writes spy or suspense novels, so perhaps he was out of his comfort zone here, but I doubt I’ll pick up another book of his.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King

To cleanse my palate after finishing The Pillars of the Earth, I immediately picked up The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a slender, somewhat unusual outing for King that I gulped down in the course of one afternoon. I say unusual because the book focuses entirely on a single character, Trisha, a 9-year old girl who finds herself lost in the woods of Maine and New Hampshire for over a week. King does an excellent job of describing the changes to her physical, emotional, and mental state as the days pass. Her biggest comfort is her hero, Tom Gordon, the Red Sox closing pitcher, whose imagined (and later, hallucinated) presence gives her the resolve and the “ice water” to survive sickness, starvation, biting insects, deceptive swamps, and the “special thing” in the woods that she comes to know as the God of the Lost. Divided into innings, the book is full of baseball references, but thanks to Jeremy, I at least know a bit more about the Red Sox than most other baseball teams, and it never got to the point of being off-putting. I very much enjoyed this little book.

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