My experience with Ken Follett has shown him to be one of my favorite writers. His descriptions of people and things and even of the dark side of the world are beautiful. Fall of Giants did not disappoint.
There are many characters involved in this book. Many lives intersect and move in different directions. There are those from different countries with strong differences in opinions, both political and otherwise. Sometimes, it takes focus to keep up with the direction things move in, but in the end is definitely worth the extra attention.
This book made for a great discussion with the club. We all wished there had been more to Katerina’s story. Maybe if her past had been a bit more discussed, she might have been a more likeable character. All enjoyed the emphasis on women’s suffrage and the dynamics of relationships because of it. How we saw the lives of everyday people made us better understand the war and how people on all sides were changed for good and bad. Everyone felt like we came away from the book with more knowledge about WWI and the politics of that time.
This book better taught us how war changed countries, molded them, and ultimately decimated some of them. In Russia during the war and revolution, they had hardly any bread. People starved to death or resorted to prostitution to feed their families. Germans lost homes to the war to be used for housing soldiers or weapons. German soldiers near the front line received very little food. When the Germans would take a British trench, they realized how much better the British were eating. They were so hungry that they would forget to be a soldier and become almost childlike over food.
The love aspects of the book add to the plot but are not a centralized part of the plot. I enjoyed seeing the evolution of the lives of the characters and what they thought about life, war, and politics.
The character of Ethel Williams seemed to be the book club favorite as she is a strong female and tends to think outside the box. Grigori was another favorite with his superhero complex and kind heart. Gus Dewar is also one of my favorite characters. I did not realize it until I began working on my plot summary. He interacts with almost every character in some way.
Would I recommend this book? It depends on the reader. If you love epic, historical, or war stories, absolutely. If you’re a romance or young adult reader, I would caution you that while there are love stories, they are not the focal points and following the story may not appeal you as much. However, the historical aspect is well worth it.
The following is a summary of the plot that does involve spoilers. If you intend to read the book, I suggest you stop at this point.
We begin with Billy who is just becoming a man and his concerns with what that means. He and his sister live with their parents and grandpa in Aberowen, a Welsh town. Billy has just finished with school and is off to work in the mines. Ethel, his sister, works at a wealthy family’s estate nearby.
Ethel works for an earl who is married to a Russian princess. The princess, Bea, is a hot and cold bride. Sometimes she welcomes her husband, but most often she is cold to him in the way of marital relations. The Earl Fitzherbert, or Fitz, is very fond of his liberal sister, Maud. Her political opinions are almost the complete opposite of his. Maud is fond of Ethel who is a maid turned housekeeper. Her brother is attracted to Ethel, and the feeling becomes mutual. The attraction leads to an affair and then a baby. Ethel is offered by the Earl’s lawyer to be paid off which she promptly refuses. She leaves everything she knows and sets off for London after her father rejects her because of her pregnancy. She finds work and starts making a life for herself. She runs into her old friend, Maud. Maud takes her under her wing. They both become active in politics and women’s suffrage. Toward the end of Fall of Giants, they have a disagreement and part ways. Ethel marries Bernie Leckwith, he adopts her son, Lloyd, and they make a life together. Their first issue is that Ethel is nominated for a political position that Bernie wants for himself. Ethel declines the nomination as she is pregnant. Ethel is a strong woman who knows her own mind and makes the best out of her situation. Although she made some decisions that were not ideal, she does not expect handouts from anyone and stands on her own two feet. She seemed to be a favorite with the book club and myself.
During this time, Billy is learning about the mines and getting better. There is a mining explosion where he earns respect and becomes somewhat of a local hero. Instead of running away from the danger, he faces it and helps others. He soon realizes that the safety precautions and emergency management of the mines is not up to par. He and his father take on local leaders to get this corrected to prevent future loss of life. The leaders also evict the families of the miners who died during the explosion. This leads to a strike from the local miners. Soon, almost everyone is evicted. The struggle to survive goes on.
The King plans to visit Aberowen after the explosion. He is invited into the house of Edward “Fitz” Fitzherbert, Earl Fitzherbert. Fitz is a very conservative politician and when rumors of war begin, he is for it. His sister, Maud, is the complete opposite. She desires peace and is considered liberal, to her brother’s chagrin. They have something akin to a house party while the king is visiting and Maud finds herself attracted to her brother’s German schoolmate, Walter von Ulrich. The attraction is mutual. After spending time together, they find themselves sneaking off for stolen kisses. They both try to deny their feelings at first then realize that they are very much in love despite the tension between their countries. Because of this, they have to keep their relationship a secret. As a war builds between all countries involved, they marry in secret and as Walter becomes a German soldier in the war, they are separated for five years. Their love endures and eventually, they are reunited. By the end of the book, Maud and Walter make their home in war ravaged Germany and start a family.
We also have the story of Russian brothers, Lev and Grigori Peshkov. Grigori works in a local factory and is saving to go to America. Since the death of their mother, Grigori has taken care of Lev. While their lifestyle is meager, Lev has become a bit spoiled with his brother always getting him out of tight situations. Once in America, Grigori plans to save for Lev’s ticket to America.
One night on his way home from work, Grigori comes across a woman being accosted by the police. He knows some of the local officers are crooked. He steps in to try and help her and ends up fighting the officers involved. An American, Gus Dewar, is passing by when he notices what is going on. He stops to assist. Everyone parts ways, but not without a warning that the officers would get revenge. The woman’s name is Katerina. Grigori is stunned by her beauty and offers her a place to stay. She has reservations but not much of a choice. She goes home with Grigori and stays with his female neighbors.
Once Lev sets eyes on Katerina, he makes her his next conquest. Grigori is dismayed and knows that it won’t end well. He feels some resentment toward his brother because he is able to attract Katerina in a way that Grigori is not. Lev and Katerina begin seeing each other. Soon, Lev finds himself in trouble once again. To keep him from being arrested, Grigori gives Lev his ticket to America that he finally acquired. Grigori sees him off and goes to find Katerina. Once, they talk, Grigori finds that she is expecting. After cursing his brother, he gives in to his feelings for Katerina and in true Grigori fashion, resolves to take care of her and his brother’s baby.
The beginning of The Revolution starts in Russia. Grigori is excited to see it and participates in protests.
Once the war begins, he’s off to fight it. When higher officers than he make bad decisions that lead to unnecessary loss of life, Grigori defies orders to keep his men safe. During the revolution, he becomes an official himself. He and Katerina move into a nice home and have a baby girl.
Lev is not sent to America as he thinks he, but to Aberowen where the miner strike is taking place. He is told to work the mines in place of those on strike. He sticks to his rogue ways and is soon cheating other miners at cards. From his ill gotten winnings and with the rush of finding himself in trouble, he is finally able to go to America.
He begins working for someone akin to a mob boss, finds himself attracted to the daughter of the boss, and is once again in trouble. When it comes about that she is expecting, he is forced into marriage and into the “family business” running a club. Still, he looks for trouble. Grigori is no longer his bail out, and so his father in law sends him into the military and off to war.
Strangely, he finds himself captured and comes face to face with his brother. Grigori listens to his tale, and fills in Lev on what’s gone on in his absence. When Lev offers his brother the money to travel to America, Grigori refuses, saying he has important work to do in Russia.
The only person Lev cares enough about to return to is his daughter, Daisy, in America. He goes home and finds that his mistress is also pregnant. His wife and her mob boss father finds out. The father demands a fight and when the fight is done, Lev’s father in law is dead, presumably of a heart attack. He flees to Canada, and then comes home to take his place in business.
Gus Dewar is an important advisor to the president. He has worked his way up and is a big man about town. Unfortunately, he has bad taste in women. He finds himself with a married woman who promises, as they all do, to leave her husband. She finally comes to Gus, and tells him that her husband has been given a promotion that will move them away. She is going with him. Gus is heartbroken and focuses on work for sometime. Soon, he finds himself taken with Olga, who happens to be the daughter of the mob boss. Her father approves the match because he wants a good life for his girl. Of course, since her father approves, Olga finds him boring. Olga and Gus are all but engaged when it comes out that she is pregnant with her father’s employees baby. Gus is once again on his own. With the war beginning and America possibly getting involved, he is too wrapped up to think of dating. He travels to Germany and finds Walter. Walter asks Gus for a favor. Since Gus is headed next to England, he asks Gus to deliver a message to Maud. Gus is in Paris with President Wilson when he runs into his friend, Rosa. She is a tough, brassy journalist with a lovely exterior. After spending more and more time with her, Gus finds himself taken with Rosa. He thinks about how she told him he was a fool when he sought to marry Olga. He and Rosa fall for one another, and finally, Gus finds happiness.