Rarely do I run into books that require I take a break from everything and spend a lot of time beating up spiders in a virtual world to avoid hurling it at the wall. For the fourth time. Unfortunately, the novel in this Book Interlude has left me wanting to set fire to it, even though I don’t really think we should burn them. It’s on its own this time because I felt it better to split my normal multi-book posts into two, as this novel genuinely angered me. Also, the post including Fall of Giants was far too long because of how genuinely awful that book was.
Winter of the World (The Century Trilogy #2) by Ken Follett
Let me start here: I literally hurled this book at the wall after at least two scenes that had absolutely no narrative purpose whatsoever. There are so many things wrong with this book that it’s difficult to figure out which one I should even start with. So let me start with one of the three parts that made this book go flying through the air.
Woody Dewar is a stalker. And somehow, he ends up married to the woman he stalked. Because that isn’t, you know, at all creepy in any way possible. Prior to going off to his WWII assignment, he attends a party thrown for Ally soldiers that acts as a way to boost morale. He meets the young and enchanting Bella Hernandez who, only moments later, gives him a blowjob on a London street; this moment makes him fall in love with her, and he becomes obsessive in thinking about her during his assignment. Which is weird. Because he’s only known her for a few hours. So he’s obsessing over a young woman who took his dick in her mouth one random night in London during a party.
Fast forward one whole year later, and he’s working with the American delegation for the United Nations in San Francisco. As luck would have it, this is where Bella and her parents live. He tracked down her address and, during a break, took a taxi to their home. While Bella’s mother is questioning him, he openly admits his lack of knowledge about Bella to her mother:
“How much time did you spend with Bella in England?” she asked.
“Just a few hours. But I’ve been thinking about her ever since.”
That’s not scary at all, is it? But then becomes clear that, as a result of sucking his cock and realising she wasn’t as in-love with her betrothed as she thought she was, Bella has broken off her own engagement; this has clearly upset her family, her mother tells us:
“When she went to Oxford, Bella was engaged to be married to Victor Rolandson, a splendid young man she has known most of her life. The Rolandsons are old friends of my husband’s and mine – or, at least, they were until Bella came home and broke off the engagement abruptly.”
Woody, being the gentleman he is, feels no remorse for having sex with a woman who was already in a relationship (or not having sex with, if we’re to believe Bill Clinton about oral sex). He also seems to think of Bella as a possession, which only makes him seem like the Better Choice:
“I’m very sorry,” Woody said. Then, he told himself to stop being a pussy. “Or rather, I’m not,” he said. “I’m very glad she’s broken off her engagement, because I think she’s absolutely wonderful and I want her for myself.”
They have their back and forth where Woody uses the deaths of his former fiancée and younger brother to generate some form of pity and to get his way, coercing Bella’s mother to let him see her:
“Mrs Hernandez, you used the word tragedy just now. My fiancée, Joanne, died in my arms at Pearl Harbor. My brother, Chuck, was killed by machine-gun fire on the beach at Bougainville. On D-day I sent Ace Webber and four other young Americans to their deaths for the sake of a bridge in a one-horse town called Eglise-des-Soeurs. I know what tragedy is, ma’am, and it’s not a broken engagement.”
It’s worth noting that the deaths of both Joanne and Chuck – a highly feminist-appearing female character who died moments after she got into an argument with Woody because he didn’t seem to understand why he needed to consider her career after they got married and one of the few gay men who barely had any characterisation other than “I’m bad at school and decided to be a part of the Gay Navy Stereotype,” respectively – serve absolutely no narrative purpose and are the other two instances in which I hurled the book at the wall. These deaths are not discussed ever again, which is why they serve no purpose; they did nothing to advance any story other than Woody “I stalk girls who give me blowjobs on the street” Dewar’s future wedding to the manipulated Bella Hernandez. What a happy basis of a marriage!
There are instances of rape mentioned, which the author seems to fail to adequately address. The rape of Carla von Ulrich is handled so poorly, and it barely even discusses how rape victims would even feel; he makes no attempt to understand how that situation might traumatise someone, and he has Carla focusing on how the rape has “nothing to do” with what her and Werner do together. Odd that she’s only focusing on Werner in that moment, and she’s saddened by how it’ll affect him; it’s absurd. It also is used in a way because her child with one of her Soviet rapists, Walli, momentarily pushes Werner to run away! But then he’s shown to be a good man who accepts Walli as his own child, even though he’s not; Carla’s feelings are rarely addressed in every way possible, and that’s infuriating because the situation happened to her. It did not happen to those men.
Futhermore, Follett seems to forget much of what he’s written. He endeavours to do too much by having too many characters. Erik von Ulrich, who decides to become a Nazi despite his Social Democratic family asking him not to, receives this treatment. At one point, he learns about the terrors of the Nazis and tells his family that they were right all along; he tells them how the Nazis have been killing Jewish people, Communists, and anyone else who was deemed unfit for society. It makes him sick, and it allows him to tell his sister to do anything she can to make sure that they’re defeated. Then, as soon as that’s over, he somehow joins the Soviet Communists. This makes no sense for his character; he knows that his sister, his mother, and many of the girls who were friends of his family were all raped by these very men. Yet, despite the fact that he knows this, he joins their ranks? This makes absolutely no sense. Follett fails to justify this in any way other than to have Carla ponder the fact that her brother ‘just needs someone to tell him what to do.’ He’s incapable of knowing right from wrong, apparently.
Then there’s the fact that, as was the issue with Fall of Giants, Follett continues to be terrible at writing sex scenes and fails to make them fit into the story. They all seem completely irrelevant and could’ve easily been edited out to make the book much shorter. As usual, men get all of the pleasure from sex, women remain submissive and give pleasure without receiving much of anything; they cum so fast despite receiving nothing in the way of foreplay, and it’s like every women lives her entire life in wet panties. Also, the only time cis-women’s bodies are every correctly referenced is in terms of medicine; if he has to talk about a vagina in relation to having sex, it suddenly seems to only be addressed in euphemisms. And let me not forget another fun fact: Women who consider cheating on their already-cheating husbands seem to have more guilt than their terrible husband who gets caught in the act. And the way he treated the only black woman (Jacky Jakes) in the entire novel? Using her and throwing her away? He should’ve found another way to write that story, honestly; though, that’s not shocking considering the only black man in the entire novel died after maybe a page and a half during the Spanish Civil War, so he had absolutely no use to any part of the story.
Another aspect that I know very little about but am currently pushing myself to learn is how antisemitism and anti-Communist views are linked; there are a lot of uncomfortable mentions of Jewish people as being the rich bankers but also being nothing but dirty Communists. The fact that this exists in this book — even if it was meant as a commentary on the conflation between the two — is uncomfortable because Follett never seems to actually comment on any social issue; he doesn’t have anyone explaining why this view is problematic, and that’s inherently an issue. He’s completely incapable of dealing with social issues, even though they genuinely are the central focus; he narrows in so much on events that he neglects the social conflict behind them.
In short, I hate this book. I hate this series. And I still have to finish the final one because I feel obligated, since they were gifts. Considering it’ll be written during the Civil Rights Movement and Follett thinks it’s so cute to refer to black and brown people as coffee, chocolate, or mocha, I’m thinking it’ll be among the more problematic of the three books in this series. I may actually set it on fire.