Warning: There Be Spoilers. Hey, the book was published in 1977. You've had more than enough time to read it.
I've always practiced the fine art of reading what I want, so I've gotten very used to shocking people over the years with titles and authors I haven't read. I'll be blunt: one of the great joys of being done with school is that my required reading days are over. I'm done with Charles Dickens, thankyouverymuch. Which would be why I'm just now getting around to The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. Honestly, I had no burning desire to ever read this book before her recent passing. I knew just enough about the story to be all "meh" about it, and while I appreciate sagas, I have this unreasonable aversion to Big Books. But I've discovered I'm much more open to trying books on audio that I might not necessarily be interested in reading (at least in the traditional sense). Lo and behold, work had the audio version, so I snapped it up and got moving through 18 CDs worth of story.
The Thorn Birds tells the story of the Cleary family (mostly that of Meggie Cleary - the only daughter surrounded my numerous brothers) at the start of the 20th century, ending in the late 1960s. The story opens in New Zealand and eventually the family makes their way to Australia and the large sheep ranching station of Drogheda, owned by Meggie's sour and dour Aunt Mary Carson. The Cleary family is soon befriended by a Catholic priest, Ralph de Bricassart - young, virile handsome and banished to Australia because he ticked off the wrong person. He takes one look at Meggie, develops "feelings" and naturally as the story wears on we get the forbidden love story thing that spins out across decades.
Let's start with what I admired about the book, because this is definitely a book I admire more so than "liked." It's hard to not admire the saga that McCullough spins, the sense of place, the pictures she paints with her words, it's no wonder people fell hook, line and sinker for this story. It's vast, it's epic, and there is a certain segment of reader who cannot get enough "tragic love story."
Unfortunately, I can't say I liked anything else about the book - namely said "tragic love story" which I found creepy and wrong and the characters, who I mostly universally loathed. To a certain extent I knew what I was getting when I started this book, even though I had never even watched the miniseries. Priest and civilian have illicit affair. What I did not know is that Ralph is almost 20 years Meggie's senior. He's in his late 20s when he meets her - which makes her 9-years-old.
NINE YEARS OLD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And Ralph's tender feelings and love begin developing the moment he clamps eyes on her. Here's the thing, I have had confirmation from other readers that they read these early Ralph/Meggie interactions as more father/daughter-ish. However I've long believed that sometimes "listening" to the writing and "reading" the writing can produce different responses. On the audio? These feelings between an adult Ralph and child Meggie came off as positively icky to me. My skin crawled in a few places.
To be fair, this is 2015. I live in a world that is post Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. I live in a world where we've learned of the massive cover up and the lengths the church went to to shuffle around priests who were abusing children. I live in a world where the Catholic Church was essentially playing Russian Roulette with childrens' spiritual, emotional and physical well-being. So to read about Ralph "loving" a 9-year-old Meggie?
Yeah, baggage. I haz it.
Now is this a "fair" criticism of a story that was written in 1977, well prior to the cover-up(s) being exposed? Probably not. But my other issues besides the creep-o factor are as follows:
I pretty much hate Ralph and Meggie. Ralph because 1) he loves a 9-year-old girl in a way that I don't think is all that "fatherly" and 2) because he throws that girl under the bus after Mary Carson leaves a second, altered will giving Ralph the option of claiming her vast fortune for the Catholic Church, thereby securing his own ambitions for power and wealth. Oh sure, the Cleary family is well taken care of, but mostly out of Ralph's guilt for being a scumbag.
Adding to the creepy factor is that Meggie is very, very naive. Most of this is the fault of her mother, Fiona (Fee) who I wanted to smack upside the head until the second half of the book (she came around for me, eventually). I mean, Meggie gets her period for the first time and thinks she's dying. Literally. She thinks she has cancer. This naivety puts an added spin of icky on the whole "romance" thing. Not only is Ralph in "love" with a young girl, he's in "love" with a young, uber-naive one.
For her part Meggie fancies herself "in love" with Ralph and doesn't "get" that she can't be with him until she gets into her late teen years. Again, did I mention she was naive? Then she seems more than happy to put herself up on a shelf and pine away for a man who essentially stole a bazillion dollar inheritance from her family. She goes so far to marry a man who vaguely, sorta, kinda looks like Ralph - Luke O'Neill. She does this because as much as she "loves" Ralph, Meggie's sole ambition in life is babies. And she eventually stops being naive long enough to figure out she's going to need a man to get knocked up.
Eventually Meggie has a daughter, Justine and a son, Dane. I pretty much hated everything about Justine, through no fault of her own. It was the way McCullough chose to write her character. The one thing I did like about the girl is that she loathed Ralph. She actually calls him "smarmy" in the book. VIVA LA JUSTINE! Dane is, of course, the love child of Meggie and Ralph which means the sun rises and sets on his ass from the moment Meggie gets knocked up. The unequal treatment between Justine and Dane, how they were both written as characters, pretty much has me hating Dane from the moment of his birth and counting down the chapters until his eventual death. Because yes, Dane will have to die. I mean, HE HAS TO! It's pretty much telegraphed early on.
Which brings up another matter - at a certain point I knew where this saga was headed. OF COURSE Dane will become a priest! OF COURSE Dane will die! I mean, HOW COULD HE NOT?!?!?!? And remember folks, I had, literally, no inkling of this story outside of "priest gets it on with lady love" prior to diving into the story.
Did I like any of the characters? Yes. I liked Meggie's older brother, Frank.
For those of you who have read the book, I'll wait for you to get your laughter under control.
Of course the ONE character I liked McCullough ships off to prison for 30 years. Colleen McCullough = the reason fan fiction exists. Seriously. Frank Cleary is the stuff of romance heroes. Is there Frank Cleary fanfiction out there? Gah, I just hope it's not prison slash-fiction.
I also really liked Ann and Luddie Mueller, whom Meggie lives with for a time after her marriage to Luke. Now there's a love story I wouldn't have minded reading. Again, is there Ann and Luddie Mueller fanfiction out there?
So where does this all leave me? I think I'm glad I finally read/listened to this book. I do think, however, that the story is a bit of a "product of it's time." It's easy to see why everybody went ga-ga over it in the late 1970s - an era that gave birth to many vast, sweeping epics. But it ultimately failed for me as I just couldn't seem to get behind any of the characters (at least the characters that stick around for more than a few chapters). Take a book like, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Sure, the characters did things that ticked me off. And sure, McMurtry had this knack for killing off all the characters I liked - but the takeaway here is that I LIKED them. More than one of them. More than just peripheral secondary characters that wandered away after a few chapters. Although to be fair to McCullough - I thought her ending was much stronger than ol' Larry's.
If I was grading this on my admiration alone, I'd probably say it was around a B. But ugh, I hated Ralph, and the only time I liked Meggie was when she actually found some nerve and told off Ralph (which she eventually apologizes for - ugh!). So I'm giving this a C. I, in good conscience, can't rate it lower than that because it's well-written and evocative. It's just McCullough made authorial choices that kinda ticked me off. Which, you know, hey - was her prerogative.
Final Grade = C