Book Summary (from the back of the book [translated by me])
In the England of the XII century, ravaged by war and hunger, people fight each one in their own way, to ensure power, glory, sanctity, love or simply survival. The battles are ferocious, the chances are prodigious and nature is cruel. The frescoes are painted by sword, destinies are carved by axes and cathedrals are built by miracles…and saint tricks. Hate reigns, but also love, manhandled often, sometimes hurt, but always victor at the end with a God that in true is often inattentive, and let himself be touched by men’s faith.
How did I go from Kinsella to Follet you asked? Well, simply, I’ll answer. Right before I read Shopaholic, I was finishing 1Q84, and I needed something lighter and fun before getting into something like the Pillars, which I knew was going to have a lot to digest.
For a couple of years now, I’ve been hearing people praise this book, and I was curious. My aunt (a big influence in me) described the book as “beautiful”, and so I was sold. She is the same one who suggested to me the Earth's Children saga, and I loved those books, so I figure this might be the same. My mother-in-law had it, I borrow it and I was in the XII century England before I could say: Medieval Times.
The story is divided in 6 parts, plus a prologue, and covers 51 years, starting on 1123. King Henry the first is king and he loses his only heir in a shipwreck. Needless to say that this will open the door for a Civil war after, but that’s the back story here. The first 2 parts of the book are grouped under “Ellen”and the 4 others under “Aliena” two main characters of the book, and although this grouping does not imply that the sections will be told under their sole perspective the things happening will touch them both a little bit more.
The main characters tree is found here, but unlike A Hundred Years of Solitude, you won’t need the tree to follow the story, since there is no a lot of main characters. The first one to take a main place is Tom the Builder, an honest man, sometimes to naïve, that dreams only with building the most beautiful cathedral possible. He travels with his family, and for a long time luck won’t be to his side. It was hard for me to like him completely, because he is that type of character that is too good for his own good. But don’t worry; you will like him for a lot of things.
We also have Phillip, a monk. Well natured and really devout, he is a neutral character to my eyes. He is not bad, but although he is good under the church premises, he will be often unjust to people who helped him, although he doesn’t see it this way.
Then we have Aliena, my favourite character. I was so happy to see that Follet gave women such an important role in a book set in a time that women were treated so poorly. Aliena, the daughter of the Earl of Shiring is an intelligent, well educated and beautiful young woman, who at the beginning of the book is engaged to William Hamleigh (ugh, we will talk about him later) but refuses to marry him, for he doesn’t read, knows nothing about culture and well…she is just better off. This decision however, will come to with a big price for the Earl family, as you will see all through the book.
My second favourite character was Ellen. She is an outlaw, that at age 15 lost the love of her life and had a baby (Jack). At the beginning she leaves in the forest, but faith has it that she will meet Tom, fall in love again, and come back to the city. I liked her a lot since she was the one criticizing a lot of the ways that ruled the story, most of them based on the ecclesiastic law. She will say what she thinks will not fear the consequences. Jack, her son, has this characteristic too, and he will pass through a lot in part because of this, in part because people dislike him for his talents.
Jack is also one of the main characters, the one who will be the most involved with the cathedral at the end of the book. Thanks to him we will leave England, travel to continental Europe and see the construction of the cathedral with different eyes. Never in my life had I thought about the building of this massive constructions, and then in this book: bam! information all over the place.
Then off course, we have the bad guys. I will only talk about the character I disliked the most, but you will find more characters building intrigue. William Hamleigh, a despicable man, he will use and abuse people, take pleasure on the pain and suffering of others, and will feel always like a victim. He will act like a boy in the body of a man, full of caprices and disdain. One of those characters that will say in the middle of the movie: If I can’t have you, no one will…chanchanchaaaaaan
Let’s clarify something: my aunt was wrong. This is not a beautiful book, it’s beautifully written. But oh my you will suffer for the good ones. The way Follet describes the human nature is involving, and you will feel their pain, hate and happiness. But is not pretty. The things that happen to Aliena for example, made me put down the book sometimes and say out loud: “C’mon give the poor woman a break!”.
I also like, as I mentioned before, the roles given to women all through the book. There’s a particular moment where Aliena is offended about the unfair treatment men give to women, thinking they are incapable of taking care of themselves, and she starts questioning it. She rises once and again, ever more powerful, succeeding against all odds.
At the end everyone gets what they deserve, good or bad, and that off course made me happy. All through the book I kept wondering if the book was going to finish crudely, which wouldn’t surprise me given all the dark moments in the book. But no, at the end, if not a happy ending there will be a just ending, and I think this was far better.
Finally my aunt was right in the fact that this book was for me. In all I really enjoyed the book, once again I was afraid to read it in French, but the story is so well told that is easy to follow no matter the language. Granted, there were a couple of words I had to look up, but I was looking for the definition, since only with the translation I still wasn’t sure what they meant. A lot of clerical terminology, I’m afraid.
Should you read this book? I think so; you will love it if like me you like books that take actual facts and intertwine a fictional story with it, is fun seeing old habits or costumes, and see how much somethings have changed, but not the essence of the human being.