on November 3, 1999
I've never been a fan of Follett, and picked this book up with some misgivings - anyone these days can try to do an "historical" novel with some quick sex, some fake archaic new-speak, and a TV-movie-miniseries concept of history. While there are some minor flaws in this book, its sweep, characterization, tensions, and love of its subject are simply riveting. I could not put the darned thing down and have lost sleep for a week compulsively page-turning. Follett, unbelievably, seems to have made little splash with this book when it first came out - more shame to the critics who missed a "Gone With the Wind" from a conventional thriller author.
His primary strength in the book is his magnificent characters. By the end, Prior Phillip, Aliena, Jack, Richard, "Witch" Ellen, William of Hamleigh, Waleran Bigod, and a host of supporting characters are as real as people you know. Their strengths and weaknesses feel as sound as earth. I've just reached the part where the Cathedral is finished, and its magnificent image, built in love, hardship, and devotion, colors the whole book like light through stained glass. And I suspect the ending will be as immensely "right" as the entire rest of the book in its proportion in spinning out complicated human lives and emotions.
Follett manages to write of an age of religious devotion without tumbling into the two pits - making fun of medieval Christian faith, or uncritically adopting it. An IMMENSELY satisfying read.
I could quibble with what I feel is some gratuitous sex, some slightly contrived plot twists, but that's like complaining about some flotsam in the river as you're going over Niagara.
DO NOT MISS THIS BOOK if you love wonderful story-spinning and history.
Well done, Mr. Follett!
on April 10, 2000
I actually listened to this book on tape, while my wife read the paperback. Both of us loved it. I not only recommend the book, but also urge people to rent the Book on Tape version, narrated by David Case, whose acting and narrative talents shine through, bringing the various characters to life. (But still purchase the book from Amazon!) I came to Pillars of the Earth after spending about two solid years reading, in my spare time, nothing but medieval histories, with a focus on fourteenth century England and the Plantagenet kings. I had never before read a book by Follett, who I had assumed mass-produced pulp spy fiction. I only chose the book because of of my interest in medieval history. To my delight and surprise, I discovered the book to be a true work of literature, which might well still be read in 100 years. I found myself amazed by Follett's ability to create an extremely complex and compelling plot, with compelling characters, against a backdrop that seemed true to the histories I had been reading. The early twelfth century is a period neglected by us moderns; but it's one that's inherently interesting. Who, today, has even heard of King Stephen (who preceded the famous Henry II, immortalized twice by Peter O'Toole in the 1960s movies Beckett and Lion in Winter)? Because, in England at least, Stephen's reign was a time of virtual anarchy, Follett was able to use the period to create characters who demonstrate the brutal lengths to which people can go when unconstrained by law and an effective legal order. At the same time, though, he has created religious and other well-meaning characters who, if alien to us because of their belief in Hell and a God intervening almost minute-by-minute in human afairs, display courage and the best of intentions in the harsh face of barbarism. This juxtaposition of the brutal and the well-meaning makes for an interesting meditation on human nature and on the hope for the gradual further civilization of our species. His ultimate message is encouraging, though he certainly doesn't shrink from depicting the nastiness of which humans are capable. In short, the book is a marvelous piece of fiction, in which Follet has done an excellent job capturing the feeling of a distant and neglected period of history.
on November 14, 2007
Personally, I don't place a lot of stock in Oprah's book club lottery. The instant stardom that placement on this reading list bestows authors isn't always, in my opinion, justified. That being said, this is a wonderful book.
Pillars is complex, moving and informative. The research was excellent, the characters are engaging and the story moves at a surprisingly quick pace for a novel of this length. The descriptions of the scenes, the completeness of the political interplay and the twists of the plot make this one of my favorite books of all time. Normally, I have little patience for historical fiction unless it brings something new or truly engaging to the table. Pillars certainly does that and more.
In other words, while there is no such thing as the perfect book, this one comes very close. My advice is simple...READ THIS BOOK -- YOU'LL LOVE IT!
But do yourself a small favor, go to the used bookstore or the library, this is not a new release and you can enjoy Follett's favorite work for a fraction of the cost. A quick search of Amazon shows dozens of options that don't have the Oprah name or any other bells and whistles that I'm sure are unneeded to enjoy this spectacular piece of fiction
on August 20, 2000
This book was highly recommended by the owner of the bookstore I frequent. Another customer noticed I was holding it in my hand indecisively and declared it was the best book she'd ever read. On the strength of these recommendations, I bought it for my vacation reading. It was a good read, but I had higher expectations of it than it delivered. I must disagree with those who have reviewed this book and called it "an epic". It's not an epic--it's just a long book. It has more similarities to a t.v. mini-series than to the epic tradition. I will forgive any number of transgressions in your average 300-page murder mystery, but given that "Pillars" is 983 pages long,I expected "more bang for my book", to pervert the idiom. I wanted to learn things that I didn't know before.
The first few hundred pages are quite well written. Follett's writing flags toward the middle (but by then, I was two days into the book, and it was raining at the cottage, so I continued reading). The problem, I think, is that we are to believe that this is a mostly historically accurate portrayal of daily life in the Middle Ages. Follett even thanks several people at the end of the book for assisting him with their "encyclopedic knowledge of the Middle Ages". In my opinion, if an author is going to go to that much effort for historical accuracy, he can't marry it up with sentences such as: "They looked fascinated: they had probably never seen a woman done by two men at the same time". There are parts of the book where the reader is brought up short by Follett's lapse into lurid prose and it is all of a sudden unclear whether one is reading a historical novel or a Harlequin romance. And that makes us suspicious of the historical aspect of the novel and ruins the suspension of disbelief.
Follett's writing style is uneven--he devotes an inordinate number of paragraphs to a description of a bear-baiting contest at a fair, yet resolves the dispute between the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury in only a few pages. There are too many disembowelments and heaving bosoms used to--pardon me--"flesh out" the middle of the book. All in all, a decent vacation read, but not the best book I've ever read
on September 15, 2011
I'm no prude, but the author's fascination with the breasts of his heroine reaches levels that you don't often see outside of erotica, or anime. Follett verbally drooled over this girl's breasts more or less all the time. And of course, all male characters in the book are instantly enchanted with her, though she never seeks such attention: apparently, other women in the Middle Ages were all ugly and had no breasts.
Even the book's ending has Aliena's husband, Jack, fantasizing at age sixty what her breasts will look like when she turns eighty. (I am not exaggerating. That's really in the book.) It's touching when an old man's physical desire for his wife remains strong despite the march of years, but it goes a little far when you feel like you've stumbled on your grandfather's porn drawer.
There's an awful lot of rape in here. Granted, rape happens, and it certainly happened at least as often in the Middle Ages, so its mere inclusion isn't necessarily a defect. But the rape of Aliena by William goes on for a long, long time; and the reader sees it for a long, long time before it happens. William goes on to rape a woman in every scene where it is remotely feasible, just so we get the message of what a Really Bad Guy he is.
I couldn't help but wonder why William didn't just marry Aliena. After all, "forced" marriage to a rape victim was a fairly common "punishment" for rapists of the time, and doing so would have cemented the permanency of William's claim on her family's land. He was effectively above most laws, so he could have gone on raping peasant girls as much as he wished, imprisoning or murdering Aliena at his leisure if she ever became too inconvenient. Most importantly, he could have also easily gotten rid of Richard --- who, as long as he drew breath, would always have an obvious and gravely dangerous claim against William as the "rightful heir" to the land William had just conquered. And this is exactly what happens, of course, once Richard is all grown up. The reader sees Richard's rise a mile away --- in fact everyone sees it except William. It's not like William doesn't know about Richard, or can't find him; the prepubescent Richard is present to have his face gratuitously mutilated during his big sister's rape, just so we get the message that Aliena is really, really Not Enjoying It One Little Bit.
I'm so tired of hearing the book's fans claim that the rape "changes" Aliena by "making her stronger". First of all, that's offensive --- rape is not some positive, coming-of-age experience that helps a girl toughen up. Secondly, I don't see any meaningful change in her character at all: the way I remember it, everything she accomplishes is done by cajoling men to take pity on her --- even something as simple as getting the clergy to buy her wool! And it's never even a challenge for her. I suppose all the men turn to putty after one look at her size of her breasts.
William, a rapist of noble birth, is sort of the chief villain. It's never explained how he's canny enough to survive the backstabbing of medieval politics, at least once his savvy mother dies, because as explained above, he's quite stupid. His only unsuccessful rape attempt happens in the backdrop of a mill, built by peasants, which he decides to destroy just for the hell of it --- even though it's on his own land, and therefore already his, when a functioning mill was one of the most valuable things imaginable to have on your land in medieval England. It wasn't an easy thing to build (the architectural development of the mill was certainly a critical economic event of medieval Europe, arguably more important than Follett's precious cathedrals that he can't stop chattering about). But William decides to destroy his own cash cow anyway, just in case wholesale slaughter of his own workers (and, of course, another heaping helping of rape) isn't quite enough to convince the peasantry --- and the reader of course --- that William is a Really Bad Guy.
Follett seems convinced that people in the Middle Ages were incapable of introspection, doubt, or change. Moreover, he doesn't consider it due to a lack of education, intellectual freedom, or scientific knowldge --- medieval people were simply born stupid. (I suppose human beings all genetically evolved to get wiser in the twentieth century?) Pillars stretches out over generations of war, famine, harsh winters, political backstabbing, religious intolerance, and lots of lots of rape --- but after facing decades of traumatic events, no character ever changes in the slightest. Through all the trials and tribulations, each character can each be summed up in two words (which they may as well have pinned to their shirts). Here they come! Tom: Peaceful Builder. William: Rapist Noble. Philip: Good Priest. Waleran: Bad Priest. Jack: Charming Genius. Richard: Rightful Earl. Aliena: Great Breasts!
There's one notable exception: Ellen, a Wiccan feminist straight out of a modern New England liberal-arts sorority. She's brilliant, creative, courageous, nurturing, and a talented teacher; she has a gift for literacy and languages, economics, land management and wilderness survival --- and of course she's incredibly sexy too! Ellen has a particular scene - my personal favorite as an example of what's wrong with the story, actually - at mealtime in a monastery where a bunch of placid, peaceful monks have taken her family in. Follett painstakingly crafts a scene where she gets up on the table, walks over to a Bible, and urinates on it --- for the apparent transitory entertainment value of the extremely predictable result of watching a bunch of monks get flustered. The idea that Ellen is self-important enough to be so theatrically vulgar to gentle and generous people who help her family (at risk to themselves with no hope of reward) --- when Follett is obviously trying to railroad us into liking her! --- nicely encapsulates this book's short-sighted arrogance.
I can only recommend book for: a) people who enjoy believing that history is simple and boring, and wish this belief reinforced; or b) hardcore fans of graphic rape with a marked preference for one-dimensional characters. This book is truly, truly horrendous. No kidding around.
For those of you who think I just hate Follett, read my glowing review of Key to Rebecca. The most tragic thing about Pillars is that it wasn't written by a hack. It was written by a kick-ass author, who can do much better than this...and has.
on November 3, 2003
I borrowed this book from my voice teacher after she recommended it to me, and soon after I did so everybody at my high school was talking about this book: my Shakespeare teacher, my friends in madrigals, my fellow English students . . . somehow everyone had come upon this book at once and I had to know what the big deal was.
_The Pillars of the Earth_ opens with a prologue that vaguely introduces future characters and a mystery that will gradually tie the numerous characters together. It is exciting and bizarre and sets the expectations high. It is apparent by this prologue alone that Ken Follett has done his research in terms of twelfth-century culture, a theme that is consistent throughout the novel.
After this, the book was disappointing at first. It was hard to get into, with the story following Tom Builder and his family in his struggle to find work in order to survive. At this point the writing seems pedantic - it is too simple, sometimes as if Follett is speaking to a child. It reflects the education level of the characters in focus, which is an interesting narrative tool but grew quite tiresome. The first part of the book took me three months to read because of this. However, I either got used to it or it lessened as the book went on - something that was most fortuitous.
Once the narration leaves Tom Builder, Follett begins to bring us into the major part of the story involving Brother Philip of St.-John-In-The-Forest. Philip is an incredibly engaging character, whose strong Christian conviction is honest without being preachy or comedic. This young, nobly ambitious monk is only one of the fine characters that make this novel worthwhile. Also of special note are Jack Jackson, the sharply intelligent and rebellious bastard son of a witch; Archdeacon Waleran Bigod, the self-serving and double-dealing priest who is just too slick for words; and Aliena, the beautiful daughter of a fallen earl who, though at great risk for becoming a dull and vapid Mary Sue, remains a fascinatingly admirable and sometimes unsympathetic character. None of the heroes are perfect - all of the protagonists have their flaws that make them undeniably human, something that most novelists don't do with their characters because it risks the character's likeability.
The story is long. It has to be - it's about the building of a Gothic cathedral, which takes twenty, thirty years to build .. and so the story spans some thirty years. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong, as is to be expected with a project of such expanse. At times it can be tedious but those points are rare. When the plot is not racing along to the point where one can't help thinking "Good Lord, what _else_ could happen?", one is learning about the culture of the twelfth century, which never reads like a textbook and always adds color and context to the story.
The unexpected thing about _The Pillars of the Earth_ is its political intrigue. It is not generally thought that such games of power would have to be played for the building of a cathedral, but this book proves it wrong. Such maneuverings are seen through the eyes of naive Philip, who must learn to move in this world if he wishes to see his cathedral built. We learn along with him what people must do for the king and just how far some are willing to go.
All in all, it is an incredible story. However, there is some gratuitous sexuality and violence that is not necessary for the plot. It seemed that all love was based around physical attraction and lust, even the most innocent of loves (never mind the constant rape scenes involving Lord William Hamleigh). This is, perhaps, to show a marked contrast between 'normal people' and the celibate monks, and also because the twelfth-century English culture did not blush at sexuality. Only a few scenes of Lord William's sexual abuse are integral to the plot; the rest are to enhance one's hatred of him and understanding of his mind. Don't read this, certainly, if you are squeamish - everything is put into its most vulgar terms (making it a historically accurate narration, and I was most impressed with that fact) and the violence is not flowery and romantic.
My other complaint was some words were used that were definitely not in the twelfth century, having been invented by either Shakespeare (such as "puke" and "weird") or someone long after his time. This will not stick out to most readers and ought not to affect the enjoyment of the novel unless one is a history buff or lover of word-lore - it might jar that sort of reader for a moment before one can move on. There are not enough instances of this for it to be distracting, and although the novel feels contemporary and the characters seem modern, it all fits ideally into the time period it was set in, making it a historical novel that is accessible to contemporary readers. Brilliant.
My recommendation? READ THIS BOOK. It is something that will stay with you for a very long time. The characters are bound to follow you at school, at work, anywhere you're not supposed to be reading. You will probably be disappointed when it finally ends. For me, it was a struggle to get through the beginning but once Philip was introduced it was quite a ride. Loved it. Read it. :)
on July 23, 2010
****SPOILER ALERT*** (Tiny little spoiler of something that happens early in the book but you never know what people will get miffed about.)
In 1989 I bought this book because I had read other Follett books and loved them so was excited by a new one. It turned out to be a radical departure from any of his previous books but, oh, what wonderful one. I read the book, all 1,000 pages of it, in a matter of days and was utterly mesmerized by every page. I passed the book on to my Dad who read it in less time than I did and he passed it on to my brother Jack who could not put it down. For a long time after we had all finished it we talked about it. What must it have been like to have lived in those terrible, wonderful times? What must it have been like to build a cathedral?
Some years later when the audio book became available I borrowed it from the library and listened to it again. It was read by one of my favorite actors, Richard E. Grant, who did and amazing job and, as I sat knitting and listening to the story, I lived the whole thing again. It amazes me that even now, 2 decades beyond the time I read it and at least one since I listened to it, I can still remember sections of it with perfect clarity. I can't imagine what could make any writer happier than knowing his story is remembered in such brilliant detail!
Of course to me the story was all about Tom Builder, the carpenter whose dream was to build a cathedral. I was completely in love with Tom and I still recall how bad I felt for him when his wife died --- and how furious I was with him when he boinked the first available woman! But he was a man of consuming passions and I guess they are like that.
Of course there are other memorable characters like the Lady Aliena who starts a business buying and selling wool (I dreamed of living then and doing that) and Tom's amazing step-son Jack who loves her.
The greatest character in the story is, of course, the Cathedral. In writing the book Follett did endless research on cathedral building and it comes alive so fully it is like a living entity. This is a beautifully crafted, historically rich book.
on July 10, 2010
This book, which is obviously highly recommended, begins auspiciously enough. The opening scene paints a picture of the medieval ages and employs sophisticated syntax and turns of phrase which are sadly not repeated in the latter two thirds of the book. The conflicts faced by the main characters, though they devolve into archetypal good vs. evil battles later, are interesting enough for the first three or four hundred pages.
The thing is that by the time you have read that far, you are compelled to finish the book. At least I was. Yes, there was the anachronistic diction, the predictable see-saw as the good and evil characters won and lost again the upper hand, the endless recaps of what had already happened, and the embarrassingly descriptive and enthusiastic sex scenes. But what was most irritating, at least to me, was the dialogue engaged in by the characters as they attempted to outdo their nemeses once and for all, time and time again. The way they would use group-think to come up with yet another plan to deflect yet another attack, and the way a character (who was supposed to be cunning and intelligent, as the characterization repeated every few chapters would reiterate) would be "shocked" by such a "cunning" suggestion was almost too much to bear. And then somebody else would always be "outraged," and then later "impressed." And then the plan would work, but the villains would regroup and try to thwart them again! But wait, there would be more sex, more drama, more sallies to deflect, more rapes to deplore, and more opportunities to gloat that the good guys had gotten the bad guys' goats just when all seemed lost! So shocking, outrageous, and impressive!
I gave this book two stars rather than one because I appreciated that this was a work of love, and had I not been forced to skim the lengthy descriptions of exactly how the cathedral was built because I was just trying to finish the darn thing, I think I would have been "shocked" and "impressed" at how "cunning" Follett's working of his knowledge of cathedral building was. But instead I found myself saying, OK, we're burning down a church now, when will this end, skip, skip, skip, begin reading again. Instances where I said, OK, we're breaching the wall, we're defending the wall, we're executing the bad guy, etc. etc. etc., skip, skip, skip became more and more common as the book wore on.
As I said, the book had a promising start. It seems as though Follett reverted to his old mindless-fodder-for-the-masses techniques after the novelty of writing a different type of novel wore off. He admits in the introduction that he didn't know how the novel would end originally, and this is another flaw. There is no reason to follow the characters for a lifetime without something to reveal about the fate of humanity or the nature of humans, and while I'm sure Follett would argue that his lengthy, pedantic insights into economics, politics, and the need for walls and laws address these concerns, the reality is that the platitudes expressed by the "good" characters are rather elementary and laughable.
I wish Follett had not bitten off more than he could chew because I read the first bit of the book thinking I had found a great novel to read during a week at the beach. Once I finished the novel, I was embarrassed that I had said as much to people before I got to the middle and the end.
If you're interested in a novel that traces the ups and downs of more than one generation of folk in the middle ages, I recommend Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders.
If you're interested in a novel that combines insights into human nature with mysticism and the middle ages, I'd recommend T. H. White's The Once and Future King.
If Follett had just stuck with what he had going on in the first few hundred pages, this could have been worthy of the accolades heaped upon it.
on January 23, 2008
I've slogged through the first 582 pages of this monstrosity, and I'm yelling "uncle". I have lots of specific complaints and I'll list but a few, but the thing I find most off-putting is that Ken Follett has no respect or understanding of the people he writes about.
Amongst my questions/complaints:
Although this story is centered in a monastery and church officials are critical characters, there is not one spiritual person in the entire tale. Prior Philip was saved by a monk, raised in a monastery, acted out until around age 13 and then suddenly settled down and grew up to doggedly obey the outward observances of religion and the simple precepts of Christianity, and all without the tiniest bit of spirituality. Did he have an epiphany? If so, Follett doesn't explain or give any motive. In essence, the man was nothing more than a good 12th Century CEO.
Tom, supposedly a gentle man who loved his children, buried his wife, and without agony, left his newborn child to die on the grave. He shortly meets up with a woman he does not know and has hot sex. And, ladies, get this: the woman takes one look at this man who's filthy and starving and has two kids and declares she's been waiting for someone big and gentle all her life and jumps his bones. Righto, Follett! I'm a believer.
Ellen (the woman who jump's Tom's bones) begins the story as a sort of fey "witch" and turns into a 1960's feminist who is so charming, she urinates on a book to express outrage. The book begins with the execution of her lover; she curses his murderers and escapes to the forest and lives in a cave. She has a very decent life living on apples (!!!??) and game and raising her son (whom she birthed all by herself, Miss Scarlett!). Right. If poaching in the King's Forest were so very easy, why wasn't she joined by other poor folk? And during a time when even kings were illiterate, she reads and teaches her son to read. With what? And in what language? (And that's another thing. Why do the nobles in this story speak English instead of Norman French?)
And so Ellen and her son just join Tom and his kids to walk the roads of England in the middle of winter, looking for work (even though Follett later tells us that you can't lay stone in the winter or the mortar won't set properly). So why doesn't she take Tom and the starving kids back to the cave until spring so they too can enjoy the bounty of the King's Forest?
And Ellen's son, Jack, should have been an interesting character, but I came to the conclusion he was an idiot savant. Follett tells us this guy is a mathematical genius, a sculptor (and he learns a LOT faster than Michelangelo, folks), an inventor and curious about everything. Yet Jack spent his first 10 years in a forest, living close to nature, which includes animals, and he doesn't know about a female needing a male to produce offspring? Oh, yes, this genius also sees no difference between The Legend of Roland and the story of Jesus. That's a bit like seeing no difference between Beowulf and Plato. So how does all that communing with nature affect Ellen and Jack? One usually expects someone who is not a modern scientist to arrive at some sort of mythical connection to the natural rhythms of nature and the circle of life. Well, not in Follett's mythical Medieval Britain, because Jack and Ellen are cynical atheists. Right.
Finally, about Aliena and her brother and her father. They are perfect idiots, the whole lot of them and which century and what country were they transported from? The father, who was so stiff necked about his word, he joins a plot against the king, but so affectionate of his daughter that he allows her to withdraw from a marriage contract? That, dear Ken F, would have been sufficient reason for an attack from the jilted grooms family. No need to bring the king into it.
And what's with a girl, a boy and a steward just hanging out in the deserted castle after the defeat? Even if Aliena had the brains of a pissant, surely the steward knew they were living like sitting ducks. And where was Aliena's waiting women? Who cooked for them? Who dressed her? Why didn't she seek her father's allies or know about the dangers of rapine? And what happened to everyone? And why was an Earl's son being taught by his sister? He should have had tutors and begun training as a page. Hamleigh didn't leave any staff at the castle they just won? Who buried the bodies? The whole thing was stupid, stupid, stupid.
Follett was waaaaay out of his depth on this one. I suspect if he'd ever read Seton or Dunnett or even Peter Elliott, he would have understood.
My favorite line in this one? When Prior Philip's brother came to visit, he exclaims, "This place was a dump..." (and I expected him to next rave about the 50" flat screen TV.)
If you have the time to read a thousand pages and an urge to take a trip to Medieval England, try Anya Seton's "Katherine". Fully satisfying with years of research and a good lesson in how an author can give you the flavor of the language and what actually drove the people's beliefs and lives.
on June 1, 2005
My parents recommended this book years ago. But after reading the jacket, I really had no interest in it. I took it home with me with an empty promise of reading it when I had time. It sat there for years, unread, until late one night when I couldn't sleep and was desperate for something to read, I picked it up with no small amount of reservation.
I re-read the jacket and realized that it was the same Ken Follet that wrote "Key to Rebecca" and a couple of other novels I'd enjoyed. I thought I'd give it a chance, and man was I in for a treat. It was one of those "great reads" that I'll always remember. Not quite up there with the first read of "The Lord of the Rings", but close.
The scope of the book is immense. It covers a wide geographical area and spans 50 years during a tumultuous time in England's history. You will learn to love (or hate) the memorable characters, and you will find yourself thinking about the book long after you've finished it.
I strongly disagree with the reviewers who say the character development is terrible. For example, some reviewers have said the women are too much of a one dimensional "damsel in distress", while others have said they were too 20th century. Some have said that the characters are to neatly cast into either good or evil, but I don't buy that either. Philip struggles with pride, Tom pursues his dream at the cost of his wife, and he basically kills his newborn son at the start of the book - only luck keeps his son alive. I could go on, but my point is that many of the one star reviews are just not accurate. Someone just didn't like the book and came here to throw a tantrum and impress us all with their insight. When one negative reviewer gives exactly the opposite critique of the next, I know the author was right on the mark.
Others drop names of "real" classic authors like Dickens, etc. while crying "THIS IS NOT AN EPIC" as loud as they can. It's almost as if calling this book an "epic" might somehow tarnish the "classics". I have suffered through more than one of the "classics", and you know what? I don't want to read archaic English, horrible sentence structure, and unresolved plot lines. It's like saying you love Shakespeare above all modern fiction. I don't know about you, but I don't find myself dying to get back to reading Othello. Search for your favorite book - I guarantee that, unless it's obscure and relatively un-reviewed, you'll find a small vocal group of people who hate it.
Follet imbibes the characters with very plausible attitudes and feelings for the time, keeping them progressive enough for me to relate to. And then he weaves it all together within a historical context that is both interesting and exciting.
Don't let this one sit on the shelf. I finally talked my wife into reading it - it took years - and it's now one of her all time favorites as well.