Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Dash of Everything: Cathedrals, Sex and Oprah

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Due to the release of Ken Follett's new novel World Without End, I decided to reread his bestselling The Pillars of the Earth. I realize that the sequel has little to do with the original other than the setting since they take place more than a hundred years apart but I still thought it would be a nice opportunity to revisit Kingsbridge and all its characters. I first read this novel in 5th or 6th grade, and finished it in one weekend. I may have reread it shortly after, and then once we moved to the States, I decided I needed to read it in English as well. So this is at least the third, and probably fourth, time that I've read this book.

Does it hold up? Mostly. It's still an entertaining and engaging read. Since I remembered it rather well, I didn't have a driving need to see what was going to happen next so it took me more than a weekend to read it. It is rather sprawling, and Follett does make sure to tie up all, and I do mean all, loose ends: for example, a character from the beginning chapters of the novel reappears in the last part. It spans more than a fifty year time span and, historically, deals with the period following King Henry's death, the war for succession and, finally, Henry II's reign. Towards the end, while still entertained, I was ready for it to end: the antagonists just kept finding ways to come back and plague everyone's lives but as I said, this is also my fourth time reading it.

I think it may have been more violent than I remembered - I was always disturbed by the bear fight scene, and there are quite a few brutal rape scenes. They serve to illustrate just what type of person William Hamleigh is, and yet, at what point do these types of descriptions become gratuitous? Follett doesn't reach that level, but I had a problem with one of his consensual sex scenes (when I was an eleven year old reading Follett's novels, I always thought they were kind of racy - at 23, I'd say they contain about the normal amount of sex that tends to be found in novels, although possibly a bit more descriptive).

In one scene, Aliena who hasn't had sex in over five years has sex with Jack. Follett inserts one sentence about how it hurt at first and then she was fine. Please. Unless they had lubricants in the 12th century (which definitely weren't mentioned in this chapter), I seriously doubt that it wouldn't have been slightly painful the whole time. That's a pretty long dry spell. While it might be easy to write it off as "he's a man," I've noticed that even women writers tend to take any complications out of sex. No matter how experienced or inexperienced either partner is, it (orgasm) happens just like that. Actually, this kind of reminds me of a Sex and the City episode (I've probably just lost most of my credibility) - Miranda was sleeping with a guy who couldn't make her come, so she was faking it. As she explained to her friends, in porn and other media outlets, the women just immediately start moaning, so it is no surprise that men (and women) would get the impression that it's very easy to make a woman come. Then when a woman doesn't come, the man thinks it's her fault, and some women may also wonder if there is something wrong with them since it doesn't come more easily. Of course, any other episode of Sex and the City perpetuates the same myth as porn - while there are episodes where the women might talk about the fact that they don't always orgasm, for the most part, they start moaning just as quickly as the porn stars.

Since I'm discussing The Pillars of the Earth, I should probably also briefly acknowledge the fact that this book is now part of Oprah's Book Club. I honestly don't know why - while a good book, it's pretty straight-forward and basic historical fiction. It's doesn't fit in with her theme of self-help or discovering oneself and boosting one's self esteem, nor is it a classic novel since I know she occasionally incorporates those as well (which is why my mom has an unread copy of Anna Karenina on her bookshelf). It also isn't about race relations or anything like that. Despite the way I like to look down on Oprah's Book Club, I have to admit the woman does have good taste - otherwise, how would some of my childhood/teen favorites such as East of Eden and Anna Karenina have ended up on her list? Or other books, that I discovered later without knowing about their Oprah connection or liking despite of, such as Middlesex and all of Toni Morrison just to name a few? And yet, The Pillars of the Earth doesn't seem like an Oprah selection - I wonder if it was a business deal to help boost sales of the sequel. Also, due to its book club status, it's kind of interesting what happens when typing in The Pillars of the Earth on Amazon - naturally, it shows up as part of the search results followed by novels such as Eat, Pray, Love and Love in the Time of Cholera. These appear in the list before Follett's other novels, all of which are more on the thriller/suspense side.

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