To be very simplistic, The Pillars of the Earth is about building a cathedral in the twelfth century in England. But to say that would be doing this book a huge disservice. The building of the cathedral serves as a cornerstone to explore the lives of an intriguing cast of characters and how life was lived at that point in history.
I wasn't too sure what to expect going into this. I just had a vague idea that it was about building a cathedral, and let's face it: to a dedicated reader of fiction that sounds pretty dry and boring. But I kept hearing how good it was from people whose opinions I respect, so I decided to give it a shot. I was mostly pleasantly surprised. I'll get to the "mostly" bit in a minute.
What made the book for me was the characters. Even the protagonists had flaws that were believable. They persevered despite their flaws and in some cases even tried to overcome them. But each character revealed something of twelfth century life. There was the monk, the young woman, the builder, the earl, and minor roles for figures from history that I've even heard of: think Thomas a Becket and King Henry II. They all added something to the story, and they each felt like a real person.
Now for what kept me from giving this five stars. The bad guy was way too bad for my taste. The fact that I despised this character should probably mean that I give the author points, but I got so disgusted and fed up that I came very close to putting the book down and never picking it back up again. I know that times were brutal back then. That doesn't mean that I want to read about rape, pillage, and slaughter for pages at a time. I don't think of myself as being too sheltered and naive, but this was over the top for me. I told my husband some parts and he even got fed up. All this stuff was actually only a fairly small, and even necessary, part of the story, but it was really almost too much for me.
The author did a good job with the actual building of the cathedral. I'm not an architecture buff, so I didn't really care about any of that. Fortunately, there was only a tiny bit. If it did go on too long, which only happened a couple of times, I just skimmed over it until I got back to the good parts.
I also kept thinking that the author had a very simple style, and wondered if this was one of his first books. I had changed my mind about that by the end. He is definitely a master storyteller, there was never a question about that, but with the huge scope of the story, he had to keep the style simple or else risk losing us. But the way everything wraps up at the end reveals the work of a master who was so good that I didn't even realize how good he was.
So, if you're not intimidated by a book that's about 1000 pages long, and you don't think you'll be put off by sheer brutality, I do highly recommend this story that is epic in scope, but very human in the telling.