Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Fetishization Of Meggie
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


Phyl said...

I read this around the same time the Snowy River movies came out. I was obsessed with all things Down Under. I remember being horrified by parts of it, yet I could not put it down. As good as the writing was, I couldn't bring myself to ready anything else by McCullough after that.

I did watch the mini series, which was worth it just to see Bryan Brown. As an aside, it's very cool that he and Rachel Ward met on the set, married, and are still married.

Bona Caballero said...

OMG, I guess that my opinion would be the same as yours, if I had read this book in 2015.
The thing is that I read it when I was a teenager. Back in the 1980s. And I just loved it! In those times things like the pink dress of Meggie or the passionate embraces in the beach, were in my impressionable teenage mind for months. Remember, it was the time of Old Skool romance novels.
And, of course -Richard Chamberlain. He was so handsome. There's a funny anecdote about the scene with him naked and Barbara Stanwyck that for the first time in her career she forgot her lines.
So after reading the book and watching this TV series, kept reading and watching anything with Richard Chamberlain. Shogun & James Clavell was the next thing.
Anyway, I have to recognize that my favourite McCullough's books are those set in Ancient Rome. Amazing historical novels, some of the best in the genre. But very different from everything else I've read from her.

azteclady said...

I'm Catholic, and we went to mass every freaking Sunday and holy day, so the fact that the male protagonist was a PRIEST always bothered me. And baggage...well, let's say that my baggage is a bit more up close and personal than yours and leave it there, so while the relationship between an adult Meggie and a much older Ralph is not a deal breaker for me (my mother's father was 22 years older than my grandmother, and they married when she was very young), I can't get over the pedophile vibe.

Then there's the lying--everybody lies to everybody else and each one of them justify their lying as the best thing to do for the other.

On top of that, no one, as you well said, is likable. They are truly self centered. Ralph with his ambition within the church. Meggie determined to have Ralph--or the closest facsimile she can find. Mary, convinced she owns everyone around her. And so on and so forth.

Between that and the whole, "let's kill off everyone tragically" gimmick, I honestly never understood the appeal.

Mind you, all the rants are from watching the miniseries not reading the actual book. I saw the miniseries, dubbed in Spanish, about a year after it was broadcast here in the US, and after that I just couldn't get into the book. Each time I tried I gave up after a few chapters.

Marguerite Kaye said...

Ditto to all that. I read it when I was also reading (hangs head in shame) Harold Robbins, and I was so blown away with the romance and the ambiance I didn't really notice anything else. But my toes were curling reading Wendy's review, it's amazing what hindsight and age does. I think I read another priest-love book at about the same time by Wendy Perriam - maybe The Stillness, the Dancing? All I remember about that one was an episode with a Mars bar on a train!

Thank you Wendy, I've been looking forward to this review, and it was every bit as fab as I hoped. Dare I ask if you're going to watch the mini-series now?

Bri said...

Like Bona and Marguerite, I was younger when I first saw the mini-series (although it was ABC re-ran it during the late 90s), so some of the stuff I look at now and say, oh no, i was swept away by because I was in my late teens. Added to the fact that my mom LOVED it and Richard Chamberlain and I watched it with her, my opinion was sqewked.

I read the book a few years later when I found in languishing in our basement. I actually liked the book better than the mini-series, because I thought it was more well rounded because it was more than Meggie and Ralph's story. Nevertheless, I was still an early twenties, and didn't really analyze what I was reading. I wanted to be entertained and it was this sweeping romantic story with lots of history and descriptions (I'm a history teacher - i really like that stuff ;)), so it pulled me in. Plus, there was sex in it. That was newer in my reading tastes. ;)

I remember liking it overall, but definitely noticing the tragedy and that some was more unrealistic. But mostly, I think I read it with suspended disbelief and the knowledge that I had like the mini-series so much.

S. said...

Like you I liked the writing and some scenes. But I've read it not such a long time ago and I saw it as a kind of exaggerated saga. I mean, I didn't take anything too seriously. I was annoyed with many of the author's choices as well.
In the end it was a relief to see so many people die because this meant I wouldn't have to worry about them in my time dedicated to "what-might-have-happened-to-those-poor-beloved-characters-i-wich-were-real-so-I-could-meet-them" in my head, you know?
Great review! ;)

Hilcia said...

I love this!

I read this book when it was released. It was one of those books that was mailed to me automatically by the "book club" I was subscribed to.

I was young, but even then I recognized that Ralph was a scumbag! (I saw it as your reason #2, never #1). Meggie got on my nerves and I couldn't stand her. He was icky and she was an idiot, in my book anyway. I hated Meggie's mother! But, I never hated Dane because he was doomed.

It was tough, tough liking the characters in this book. But, I loved McCullough's writing, and her descriptions of Australia. And, although I never picked up another book by the author, I never forgot the book either, and became entranced with other books set Down Under.

I watched the mini-series and hated it just as much as the book. LOL!

JamiSings said...

Never read the book because mom forced me to watch the miniseries as a kid. All I can remember from that is when Meggie's getting her hands slapped with a ruler and Ralph intervenes.

Far as I'm concerned the only good thing to come out of The Thorn Birds was that episode of Mama's Family where Mama decides to go back to school and is the only one in her english class to read The Scarlet Letter because once she was told what the plot was she was all "It's like The Thorn Birds!"

Nikki said...

Great review, Wendy, and pretty much how I felt about it. I think I subconsciously blocked out some of the plot because...well, just ugh. And I never read anything else by her. It was just too much for me.

Kristie (J) said...

LOL!! Some of these comments are exactly what I thought too. I was in my early 20's when I read the book and it was one of the early romances I read. Ralph was supposed to be the hero and give it all up for Meggie, the priesthood AND the money. And though I finished the book and watched the miniseries (mostly for Richard Chamberlain

Kristie (J) said...

Grr keeps freezing on me but I continue, as Bona thought. I was almost glad when Ralph died as I'd never forgiven him, though I still cried that he did. I was angry at Meggie for a wasted life it seemed, longing for a man who both called her and rejected her at the same time. Justine was prickly as they come.
And (laughing) also went on to read Harold Robbins and read then watch Shogun. I honestly don't think I could read The Thorn Birds today without wanting to tear it all up and throwing it on a burning fire but it did have a huge impact on me back in the day.

Wendy said...

Phyl: Crap. Bryan Brown is Luke?! Damn. I might have to watch the miniseries.

Wendy said...

Bona and Marguerite: LOL! That's me. Trampling all over romantic teenage memories :) My sister was telling me she read this during a less-than-memorable summer when she was working at a plastics factory. She read this and The Stand by Stephen King in the same summer! Anyway, she was 19 and said she got so swept up in the soap opera of it all that she didn't notice any "creepy parts." LOL

Wendy said...

AL: That's it exactly! I would have been fine with the age difference (truly!), but the fact that Ralph begins developing feelings of love for Meggie when she's NINE was too much for me. Ick, ick, ick!

Ugh, and the whole, "I can't have him so I'm going to take a little piece of him with me forever by having his baby" thing was enough to make me spit nails. I've seen that nonsense in more modern romances and it never fails to infuriate me no end.

Wendy said...

Bri: Oh the saga aspects are really well done. I loved all the Australia "stuff" and the big dramatic scene when a wild fire sweeps towards Drogheda? How could you not love that? I just so wish all the great history and saga bits had been populated by characters I didn't want to throttle ;)

Wendy said...

Sonia: LOL! I walked away from this book only wanting more of Frank and the Muellers. I'll probably go to my grave spinning between stories for those three people :)

Wendy said...

Hils: I hated Dane mostly because I felt the author short-changed Justine's character - which irritated. But then the golden boy trope has always been one that annoys me.

I talked to my sister this afternoon and she said how much HATED Fiona (Fee). I intensely disliked her as well - although I liked her scenes with Meggie where they discuss Dane's parentage. She came around a teeny-tiny bit for me there at the end. But just a teeny bit!

Wendy said...

Jami: The book left me relieved about two facts in my own life. 1) I'm glad I never had a bratty brother who tortured my baby dolls and 2) That I never went to Catholic school :) I really did enjoy the very early moments of the book, when the family is in New Zealand and well before Ralph enters into the picture. Then it slide right on downhill for me.

LOL! Mama's Family meets Hawthorne meets The Thorn Birds.

Wendy said...

Nikki: I listened to this on my work commute. I did a lot of talking to the car stereo. "Why, why, why?!?!?!" "OMG cupcake! Seriously! Just forget about him already!" LOL

Wendy said...

Kristie: Oh Lord, yeah. Probably not a book that would stand-up to a reread, especially as a hard core romance reader. We NEED our happy endings! And Ralph and Meggie are not only doomed, but frustrating to boot. You said it perfectly. That she had a "wasted life" pining for this guy who, because of power and ambition was not going to give up the priesthood for her. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her for the entire book!

Anonymous said...

I watched the miniseries with my mom. I was in high school and didn't get what the fuss was about. Then saw it again as an adult. There are some bonafide ick moments but still, it made for great drama. After all, it was a forbidden love affair. I've never read anything else by her. I do want to read her Roman series eventually.

Wendy said...

Keishon: Y'all are tempting me with the miniseries! LOL And yeah, as much as I couldn't seem to get past the "ick moments" - I really loved the saga of the storytelling. I swept right along.....even as I wanted to throttle the characters!

Unknown said...

I also read it decades ago and named my daughter Megan. Though my dad was Welsh and I liked the name. I,ve since read a book called Fairvale ladies book club set on a station too. Having travelled to Australia several times, I enjoy reading about its landscapes and lifestyles almost more than any storyline. With Covid, books may be the nearest we get to overseas travel. I agree story a bit icky..

mrskwong said...

As a young teenager the story seemed very romantic at the time (early 1980s) but in 2022 the story comes across quite differently and the relationship creepy. Most of the other girls and their moms also found the story romantic and intriguing. People today argue over whether or not his feelings towards her at nine were romantic and inappropriate but I find it disturbing either way since he was a father figure to her while she was growing up. I don't really find the characters very likeable either for all of the same reasons that have already been mentioned. I did like Rachel Ward's performance in the mini-series though. During the 1970s and 1980s unhealthy and unrealistic views of love were being portrayed and reinforced in books, movies and on television. Abusive and inappropriate relationships were constantly normalized and romantized. Also during this same time frame one of the most popular love stories on television was a storyline on General Hospital involving a rape victim falling in love with her rapist. Fans would shout out to the actor who portrayed the rapist, "Please rape me too, Luke!". Looking back today while reading old stories or watching old movies with my teenaged daughter has been quite the eye opener and cringeworthy at times.