October 20, 2012

The Thorn Birds

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
1977 Harper Collins
Finished: 10/6/12
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)

There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain… Or so says the legend.

Publisher's Blurb:

The magnificent epic, one of the most beloved novels of all time.

Colleen McCullough's sweeping saga of dreams, struggles, dark passions, and forbidden love in the Australian Outback has enthralled readers the world over. This is the chronicle of three generations of Clearys, ranchers carving lives from a beautiful, hard land while contending with the bitterness, frailty, and secrets that penetrate their family. Most of all, it is the story of only daughter Meggie and her lifelong relationship with the haunted priest Father Ralph de Bricassart—and intense joining of two hearts and souls that dangerously oversteps sacred boundaries of ethics and dogma.

A poignant love story, a powerful epic of struggle and sacrifice, a celebration of individuality and spirit, Colleen McCullough's acclaimed masterwork remains a monumental literary achievement—a landmark novel to be cherished and read again and again.

The Thorn Birds was published 35 years ago. If my memory is correct, I read it sometime around 1981, when I was 20 years old. I’ve always considered the novel one of my all-time favorites from my life as a young wife and mother, much like The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher, which I read in the late 1980s. So when Bellezza and I agreed on a buddy-read, I was very happy to finally have a reason to give this chunkster a second reading. We decided to read it in September, so I began on August 31st, which was a big mistake. I should’ve started on July 31st, as it took me almost 6 weeks to finish! It’s probably the longest book I’ve read (excluding audio books) this year, coming in at 673 pages in the trade paperback edition.

So, did it stand the test of time? Well, you’d think with all those Post-it flags, I’d say it was fantastic, but unfortunately, this was not the case. I certainly liked it well enough to read the entire book, never once feeling like I wanted to quit, but it didn’t wow me the way it did when I was a young woman. Was it the illicit love affair that intrigued that young wife back in the 80s, much as Fifty Shades of Grey is doing for young women in 2012? Was I simply young and na├»ve, never having read anything as scandalous as this? I’m not sure, but it certainly didn’t bowl me over this second time around. If anything, I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about.

There was so much about this novel that I’d forgotten. It isn’t simply a story about Meggie and Ralph’s love for one another, but about the country and about Meggie’s family and her upbringing. Oh, I shudder to think of attending a Catholic school -- or at least, a Catholic school such as the one described in this book! Thankfully, I was raised Episcopalian!
As they followed the upward rise of the cane above her own hands Meggie’s eyes closed involuntarily, so she did not see the descent. But the pain was like a vast explosion, a scorching, searing invasion of her flesh right down to the bone; even as the ache spread tingling up her forearm the next cut came, and by the time it had reached her shoulder the final cut across her fingertips was screaming along the same path, all the way through to her heart. She fastened her teeth in her lower lip and bit down on it, too ashamed and too proud to cry, too angry and indignant at the injustice of it to dare open her eyes and look at Sister Agatha; the lesson was sinking in, even if the crux of it was not what Sister Agatha intended to reach. [Meggie’s punishment for arriving late on her first day of school.]

Life with a stoic mother wasn’t as terrible as the discipline she suffered at school, but I still felt sorry for Meggie:
As for Meggie, she was incapable of equating Teresa’s beaming, portly little mother with her own slender unsmiling mother, so she never thought: I wish Mum hugged and kissed me. What she did think was: I wish Teresa’s mum hugged and kissed me. Though images of hugs and kisses were far less in her mind than images of the willow pattern tea set. So delicate, so thin and wafery, so beautiful! Oh, if only she had a willow pattern tea set, and could give Agnes afternoon tea out of a deep blue-and-white cup in a deep blue-and-white saucer!

And then she and her family had to move to Gillanbone:
In the morning they stared, awed and dismayed, at a landscape so alien they had not dreamed anything like it existed on the same planet as New Zealand. The rolling hills were there certainly, but absolutely nothing else reminiscent of home. It was all brown and grey, even the trees! The winter wheat was already turned a fawnish silver by the glaring sun, miles upon miles of it rippling and bending in the wind, broken only by stands of thin, spindling, blue-leafed trees and dusty clumps of tired grey bushes. Fee’s stoical eyes surveyed the scene without changing expression, but poor Meggie’s were full of tears. It was horrible, fenceless and vast, without a trace of green.

I didn’t recall Mrs. Carson’s (Meggie’s grandmother) attraction to Father de Bricassart, but it was quite apparent upon this second reading:
She accepted the deliberately blatant flattery in the spirit in which it was intended, enjoying his beauty, his attentiveness, his barbed and subtle mind; truly he would make a magnificent cardinal. In all her life she could not remember seeing a better-looking man, nor one who used his beauty in quite the same way. He had to be aware of how he looked: the height and the perfect proportions of his body, the fine aristocratic features, the way every physical element had been put together with a degree of care about the appearance of the finished product God lavished on few of His creations. From the loose black curls of his head and the startling blue of his eyes to the small, slender hands and feet, he was perfect. Yes, he had to be conscious of what he was. And yet there was an aloofness about him, a way he had of making her feel he had never been enslaved by his beauty, nor ever would be. He would use it to get what he wanted without compunction if it would help, but not as though he was enamored of it; rather as if he deemed people beneath contempt for being influenced by it. And she would have given much to know what his past life had made him so.

Curious, how many priests were handsome as Adonis, had the sexual magnetism of Don Juan. Did they espouse celibacy as a refuge from the consequences?

But I do remember Father Ralph’s initial fondness for Meggie:
Just why he was so fond of Meggie Father Ralph didn’t know, nor for that matter did he spend much time wondering about it. It had begun with pity that day in the dusty station yard when he had noticed her lagging behind; set apart from the rest of her family by virtue of her sex, he had shrewdly guessed. As to why Frank [Meggie’s older brother] also moved on an outer perimeter, this did not intrigue him at all, nor did he feel moved to pity Frank. There was something in Frank which killed tender emotions: a dark heart, a spirit lacking inner light. But Meggie? She had moved him unbearably, and he didn’t really know why. There was the color of her hair, which pleased him; the color and form of her eyes, like her mother’s and therefore beautiful, but so much sweeter, more expressive; and her character, which he saw as the perfect female character, passive yet enormously strong. No rebel, Meggie; on the contrary. All her life she would obey, move within the boundaries of her female fate.

Yet none of it added up to the full total. Perhaps, had he looked more deeply into himself, he might have seen that what he felt for her was the curious result of time, and place, and person. No one thought of her as important, which meant there was a space in her life into which he could fit himself and be sure of her love; she was a child, and therefore no danger to his way of life or his priestly reputation; she was beautiful, and he enjoyed beauty; and, least acknowledged of all, she filled an empty space in his life which his God could not, for she had warmth and a human solidity. Because he could not embarrass her family by giving her gifts, he gave her as much of his company as he could, and spent time and thought on redecorating her room at the presbytery; not so much to see her pleasure as to creature a fitting setting for his jewel. No pinchbeck for Meggie.

A few final thoughts for Bellezza…

Wasn’t Luke awful? I hated his selfish, self-centered attitude about life and marriage. I don’t think I would have been as proud as Meggie and would’ve caught the first train back to Drogheda… at least I say that now, as a 50-year-old. I wonder what I would’ve done as a young bride…

And, oh my. I’d completely forgotten about Justine and Dane… and the Second World War. This was quite the saga!

I honestly can’t recall if I ever saw the mini-series, starring Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward and Barbara Stanwyck. I’ll add it to my Netflix queue and give it a go. 


  1. Oh man, I remember loving this way back when. Too bad it didn't live up to a reread.

    1. Well, it could've been worse. Like I said, at least I finished and never once felt like quitting. That's saying a lot for a long book!

  2. Sharon2:45 PM

    Interesting review. I read this as a younger woman and remember not being able to put it down! I never watched the mini series because I thought Richard Chamberlain was a total miscasting of Father Ralph from the author's description of him. Please consider posting your thoughts on that once you get around to watching it.

    1. After watching that clip from the miniseries, I'm not sure I'm going to bother!

  3. Sandy4:50 PM

    Funny, I just re-read this last summer. I enjoyed it the second time around and probably understood much more than I did when I read it the first time at 17 years of age.
    I remember watching the mini series on TV with my Mother and the controversy that was created because it aired over Easter weekend.
    The Shell Seekers was also a favorite of mine that I have been wanting to re-read. I must go dig it out of that box that is located somewhere...???

    1. I'm probably going to skip the mini series, but I still want to re-read The Shell Seekers. Maybe next spring...

  4. First, when I opened your blog and saw the (breathtaking!!!!) photograph in your header I thought, "What a perfect shot for The Thorn Birds. It's ominous and beautiful at the same time."

    You, my friend, did a much more thorough job in your review. In fact, you reviewed it, whereas I pretty much stuck to Ralph as he caught most of my attention. Yes, Luke is an utter asshole, let me just say that now. Selfish doesn't even begin to touch him. Justine and Meggie never really connecting, only maybe a little bit at the end, was another tragic relationship. Perhaps the most tragic of all, even more than Meggie and Ralph themseles is the death of Dane. Of course, it had to be so I think. How could the one truly good person in the whole novel survive? He was not cut out for this world, and I mourned his death almost as if it was real. (I guess I leapt to my own feelings about my own son, connecting Dane and Daniel far too much, but you know my precarious position with him joining the Marines and the fear that sometimes brings me.)

    Anyway, I thought I didn't like this novel on the reread, and then in writing my review I realized I like it quite a bit. Just not the same way as I did in my twenties. It's so interesting to come to a book at a different stage of life, because I find I have a totally different take on it. Just as I did with my latest reread of Anna Karenina. What was once great sympathy for her became a greater sympathy for Vronsky. But, that's another review for another day.

    For now let me say that I'm glad we read this together. I'd read anything with you any day, and never worry about it taking longer than expected. As we say in teaching, "It's a journey not a race."

    1. That photo was taken when I was on Kauai this past March. It was the only beautiful evening of the entire trip! I would so love to return some day, but not during the rainy season and only if I can fly Business Class (or stay in CA for a few days before heading to the islands).

      You are too kind. I think your review of the book is outstanding and much more in-depth with regard to dear Ralph. What an interesting character...

      Speaking of interesting characters, that Luke was an asshole and he reminded me of someone I used to be married to many, many years ago...

      ****SPOILER ALERT*****

      Yes, I too mourned Dane's death. Such a tragedy and I found my heart breaking for Meggie, Justine and Ralph. Dane was the glue that held them all together, don't you think? I understand why you might associate your feelings about Daniel with Dane, but I wish you wouldn't. I wish there was something I could say or do to assure you that Daniel will be fine. But, of course, how do I know that? Platitudes are a waste of breath and I know better than to fall into that shallow pit of concern. The reality is that I'd be just as worried as you and all the reassurances from friends and family wouldn't make one bit of difference. You are entitled to your fears and worries and I won't rob you of them, but rather be here whenever you need to say them out loud.

      I'm very happy we read this together and I'm willing to try another buddy-read anytime you like. That is, as long as you continue to be patient with this slow-poke. :)

  5. I am probably the only woman who has never read the book or seen the movie. LOL

    1. Oh, I doubt that. I think the book is worthwhile, if you ever get the chance to try it.

    2. Diane, count me in as well. I haven't exp. either. Only know Richard Chamberlain is in the movie. And Les, isn't it interesting that our viewpoint change over time and with our stage in life. I'm reading Anna Karenina with Bellezza, and she's saying her view has changed too upon rereading this time. I'm eager to read her post, but not until Nov. 15 Hopefully by then I'd have seen the film as well. Glad I've made the connection with you in the blogosphere after all these years.

    3. I saw that you and Bellezza are reading Anna Karenina and wish I had the time (and desire) to read it a second time. I'm looking forward to seeing the film, though!

      I'm glad we've finally "met" after all these years, too. :)

  6. How disappointing. The Thorn Birds and The Shell Seekers were favorites for me, too, but from a time and place that seems so far removed from where I am now. I'm almost afraid to revisit them...

    1. I'm not sorry I reread The Thorn Birds, JoAnn. It just wasn't the same experience as when I read it as a young girl. I read The Shell Seekers somewhere around 1990, so maybe I'm remembering it better than McCullough's book. I've read and enjoyed other books by Pilcher (more recently), so I know I still like her style. The Thorn Birds is the only thing I've ever read by CC. None of her other books have appealed to me in the least!

  7. I loved this book way back when I read it at 18 or so. Then the mini-series came out and I was swept away once again. I wonder what my 43 year-old self would think of this one now!!???

    1. I think Bellezza commented about this as well, but isn't it interesting that most of us read this in our late teens? I wonder what one book 40-50 year olds will find themselves reminiscing about in 30 years? Probably Fifty Shades of Grey.


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