I opted not to include any passage with this review because there wasn't a single instance in the book that jumped out at me and made me say "ooooh that's good writing." It's certainly a capably written book, but its not gonna wow you with any literally legerdemain. Also, I don't care HOW long a book is (this one weighs in at 975 pages), you're never allowed to use the word 'lugubriously' twice in the same novel. It's a once per book word. Sorry, Mr. Follett.
Anyway, I was less than blown away by The Pillars of the Earth. It's a fun book, don't get me wrong. But after reading that it was ranked in the top 50 of 'America's Favorite Books' I had high hopes. I should have remembered that America also pays $350 million every time Nic Cage stars in a movie by Michael Bay... But I digress.
This is essentially the story of the building of a cathedral. I've read books that used architecture as a backdrop and did so with more success, however (Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead) comes to mind. The romance, passion, and genius of architecture don't come through in POTE. It just gets squeezed in once or twice per chapter and you sort of train your eye to skip over it once you realize how interestingly it's being used. But overall, it's an interesting story that stretches over 50 years. One of the things Follett does very effectively is switching narrators and protagonists. The story's focus shifts seamlessly from character to character and it takes you a while to even realize that the character you've come to think of as the main character has faded into the background.
POTE, when you boil it down, is a constant progression of: 1) The antagonists have created a problem. 2) The problem is solved by the protagonist's clever thinking or God's will. 3) The antagonists start scheming once more. 4) Repeat. It gets a little monotonous and you can really see Follett forcing these conflicts at certain points just so he can solve them 100 pages later (see my complaint about Aliena's character).
My biggest complaint about POTE was the inconsistency of its characters. I could list a dozen examples, but Aliena jumps out at me in particular. Without really spoiling anything, I can tell you that Jack and Aliena fall in love. Jack leaves. Aliena searches all over God's creation to find Jack going on and on about how she can't live without him and how he is the key to her living a full life. They reunite, fall in love, etc. 100 pages later she decides to leave him for no reason whatsoever (a small problem created by the antagonists), completely reversing everything we know about the characters feelings for Jack. But wait... Something happens that solves the problem and everything is happily ever after... For 50 pages before something else goes wrong. It was mildly obnoxious. I wanted to put the book down right there but I only had like 100 pages left.
If this was 300 pages I might recommend it, but I can't in good conscience recommend a 100 page tome that really didn't do anything for me. So read at your own risk.
PS - This is being made into a TV miniseries. I probably wouldn't even watch it but one of the main villains (another character who suffers shows complete inconsistency near the end of the book) is going to be played by Ian McShane. McShane, if you don't know, was probably the coolest character on the coolest TV show ever made, Deadwood. So look for this on your TiVo in 2010.
PPS - Sorry its been a month between reviews. LSAT prep and law school apps have taken precedence, but that's settling down now. I hope to have 55+ books done by Jan 1, 2010.