Books To Lose Your Virginity To: The Pillars of the Earth

Welcome to a new series - the best kind, where I just add to it when I want, not like that horrible attempt to read the Amazon First Novel Award shortlist (uhh more on that later).

Once upon a time, none of us knew anything about sex. I know right, hard to remember. Inevitably, some kid will spill some horrible factoid on the playground and dump you head long into a word of genitalia, urges and couplings. But you don't really learn about sex from other kids, you learn about it from books, or at least you do if you're a literate, curious-type. Not Our Bodies, Ourselves kinds of books but dirty books. The kinds of book that need to be read clandestinely between the stacks at the library.

First up on the plate: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I have a great story behind this one. As you can probably imagine, I was a total bookworm as a child. After grade eight my mom asked my social studies teacher for recommendations as to what I should read over the summer. He recommended Pillars of the Earth because, ya know, it's about British history, right?

Well, let me tell you NO fourteen year old should be reading this sick shit. It is one of THE sickest books I have ever read. It's kind of great but there is so much rape and lust in this 973 page monster that I remember re-reading several passages with wide-eyed terror. And it was an Oprah pick in 2007!

For those of you not in the know, Pillars of the Earth is set in mid-12th century England in the fictional market town of Kingsbridge. Its twisted, wind-y, multi-generational plot (think Sarum) centres around the building of a cathedral and is set against the troubled political climate of the time. The cast of characters include the wicked Lord Hamleigh, Lady Aleina (who refuses Hamleigh's hand), Tom (a poor stonemason) and his companion Ellen, Tom's son Alfred (an impotent, sadistic monster who marries Aleina) and Jack (Ellen's son whom Aleina loves).

I think what disturbed me about the book is that the central female character is raped not once but twice. And maybe it's just me but the rapes are lasciviously and elaborately painted as if they are important decoration in the book. Hamleigh rapes Aleina when she refuses his hand and forces her brother, Richard, to watch (what?!). Later, Aleina is raped by her cruel husband, Alfred (or at least he tries to). Richard, understandably tired of seeing his sister frisked by jerks, offs him.

There's a lot more to this book than non-consensual sex - Gothic architecture, the question of whether royal power is absolute, the workings of a market economy etc. It really is an entertaining way to learn about British history. But does this lesson need to include the objectification and degradation of women?

Sorry to be Debbie Downer here. I promise I'll pick a more sex-ific book next time..Fanny Hill anyone?

The Pillars of the Earth / Ken Follett / 1989 first edition / PB, 2007 (Oprah's pick edition)


b*babbler said...

This entire post made me giggle, not because of the rape of course, but the whole idea of those of us bookworms learning about sex from between the covers.

The book I remember learning about sex from that was completely twisted? Flowers in the Attic. I have no idea why I was allowed to read this, when up to that point I wasn't even allowed to touch a "kissing only" Harlequin. Clearly, someone wasn't looking closely!

Rella said...

You need to elaborate more on this teacher, heh.

karen said...

i second reading flowers in the attic when i was entirely too young. but where did i first learn of menstruation? tamora pierce's alanna books, of course!

B.Kienapple said...

OK I have never read Flowers in the Attic and now I totally will for this blog. Lots of people have told me before that it was one of their fave books as a kid..despite the fact that it's supposed to be totally twisted. :)

Don't want to name names here but Karen, you know who I'm talking about, right?? I can't even remember his name now..he made us read Sarum too and it also had lots of 'action' in it.

Joanne said...

Hmmm, I've only managed about 40 pages of this monster but after reading this post I've got the blechy shivers. The only reason I'm even attempting to read this and the sequel is that my mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law have been constantly telling me how amazing they are. And they never once mentioned lasciviously, elaborate rape scenes (o.O)

karen said...

i suspect sarum was the year before i was there, but i've read it since then anyway. heck, anywhere there were bosoms to discuss was fair game, if i remember correctly.

FitA is totally twisted. i re-read it relatively recently and spent most of my time going.... "THIS is YA???" Oi.

B.Kienapple said...

No it wasn't our bosoms-obsessed teacher, it was Mr. L___. He was equally creepy.

Also, I had no idea there was kissing-only Harlequins!! Amazing!! Stephanie Meyer could write them though I hear the fourth book ramps things up.

karen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karen said...

ah. i managed to make it through without having Mr. L, so. (makes you realise the percentage of creepy teachers, actually, when there are a few i could choose from that would fit this scenario...)

re: meyer ramping it up - and *how* - although still with a fade-to-black on the juicy stuff, and loving detail on the *ew, gross* stuff.


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