I may be almost the last person on earth to read this hefty and historical novel by Ken Follett, but I just finished it and thoroughly enjoyed the read. I don't think it's the kind of novel that lends itself to book club discussions, because I didn't find it dealt with Big Questions that stimulate debate. Nor was it really well written. But for a interesting, page-turner about a very different time in history, it's a good yarn.
I admit I was a bit taken aback when I picked it up -- with both hands. It's a whopper, close to 1,000 pages on the building of a great medieval cathedral in the middle of the 12th century in Kingsbridge, England. The story opens with the sinking of the White Ship, an event that resulted in the drowning of the only legitimate son of King Henry I of England, and triggered decades of anarchy.
So it's pretty clear off the top that this is a story that takes place in perilous times! The novel gives a good sense of how difficult life was in that period, certainly for the poor, the peasant farmers, and even master builders. But life was also very perilous for the emerging merchant class, and even for the rich who could all lose their wealth and position at the whim of whoever held the Throne. Such an environment naturally bred a lot of nasty politics, brutal plots and conspiracies and general mischief-making.
The story contained more romance than I would have expected, as it seems that everyone who wasn't a monk (and even some of the monks) spent a fair amount of time finding, holding and losing mates. And far more detailed description of architectural styles than I would have like. I must confess that I did skim through some of the pages that described in fair detail how various construction problems were dealt with in designing and building a massive Gothic cathedral.
One quibble: the characters were not terribly complex: the bad guys were thoroughly bad, the good guys very good (even when they made mistakes or said the wrong thing, their rationale was clear so these mistakes were forgivable.) That doesn't really detract from this being a fun read, but it keeps it from being a significant novel (in my insignificant opinion.)
As I understand from interviews with Ken Follett, he didn't base this novel on a particular cathedral project, but was inspired by Wells (in southern England, near Bath) in the early stages of the novel, and then Salisbury toward the end, when the final building takes its shape and style, he said on the Oprah Book Club website. (Since this was an Oprah pick, I knew I would find some background there.) Said Follett: "But what I think about most, when I look at a medieval church, is the people who built it."
As good a base as any for a novel.