Top critical review
A disappointment from Follet
Reviewed in the United States on December 21, 2017
It's hard to believe that the same author that wrote one of the great books of all time, "Pillars of the Earth", also wrote this book. It's start out really, really poorly and I almost put it down before I had read 200 pages. But I had read the first two in the trilogy and I was interested in the history of the era, so persevered. It gets better but the issues still remain.
The reason I gave this 3 stars instead of 1 or 2 is the historical fiction aspect. This is where Follet shines. He does a good job of explaining the detail and background of events that, though I lived through them, I was young enough that I didn't know these details. But even here, while duly recording history, Follet's political bias' colour the narrative - whose politics he agrees with and his interpretation of events definitely sway the pure facts of the narrative. He is especially harsh and critical of the Kennedy brothers in contrast to the view of most contemporary historians.
But the worst part of this book, the hardest bit to suffer through in order to get to the good bits, were the purely fictional characters. This is meant to be a sweeping generational novel where the real hook for the reader should be that we care about these families as they live through these times. But in 1145 pages, Follet cannot do better than to give us cardboard cutouts with no soul and some of the most trite, insipid dialogue I have ever had the displeasure to read. We should be crying and laughing and sharing these monumental events with these characters (because, of course, Forrest Gump-like, they all just happen to be right in the middle of everything through all the decades). But instead they are just passive observers and we don't care at all about them.
Even worse, Follet treats the reader like a dunce who can't remember from chapter to chapter people and events, constantly repeating what this person did, or who they are. And repeating the background of people, events and places multiple times. This book could have been cut by at least a third in length if these repetitions were eliminated. There is a cast of characters at the front but I never once had to check it, as I often do in other similar books, because I keep getting told even what I remember every time a character shows up again. The other device I found really irritating is Follet's practice of telling us about a historical event followed by a comment like ". . . George thought" or someone else thought. Not a true experience of the event by George, just something like George is watching this event unfold on TV (say the Berlin Wall coming down) and something about the wall, and then "George thought this was great" or something equally trite.
Writing this review, I now want to change my rating back to 2 stars as I remember how irritating the fictional characters were. But I did get swept up in the story and the historical parts were interesting and well written. I am surprised by all the 4 and 5 star reviews of this book, maybe other people did better at ignoring the weakness of the main characters. I have read all of Follet's historical fiction novels and, while some were better than others, this one is by far his worst.