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Review: The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

When Meggie is a young girl, her poor family receives the opportunity to go live near and work for her rich aunt in Australia.  After eking out a difficult living in New Zealand, her parents seize the opportunity, taking Meggie and their many sons with them to become ranchers on the Australian outback.  While living in Australia, Meggie meets the preacher, Ralph de Bricassart, when she is still a child.  The ambitious priest and innocent little girl bond unexpectedly, particularly as Meggie grows into a woman with her own wants and desires.  This relationship is at the heart of a generational saga about strong, independent men and women determined to make the best out of lives sometimes marred by scandal, heartbreak, and tragedy.

I’ve been looking forward to The Thorn Birds for what feels like a very long time.  I read and enjoyed one of Colleen McCullough’s books about Rome, but I’m not so into Roman history and never really went back to the series.  When I heard that she’d written this one about Australia and that it was widely recognized as a great read, but mostly from before I was old enough to know about it, I knew it was a must read for me.  When Alyce (At Home with Books) mentioned it as one of her before-blogging favorites just before I went home, I decided to take it on the plane with me, and I read the entire thing over one flight.

I love deep, intricate plotlines that span generations of one family like this, and The Thorn Birds was far from an exception to that.  Meggie’s mother’s actions clearly have an effect on her, which trickles down to Meggie’s children and their decisions.  Meggie’s relationship with Ralph spans most of the book, growing and changing as the characters themselves age and mature.  And beyond that, this book really has it all; romance, grief, tragedy, scandal, joy, the struggle of immigration and fitting in, the difficulty of remaining celibate while falling in love, parenthood, sibling rivalry, and so on.

Most of the book is set in Australia and the depiction of it in this novel was stunning.  I’m so curious to know if a layer of dust really did collect on everything, if the heat is always that oppressive, and what it’s like to really be a sheep farmer.  Obviously the book is set in the early 20th century so things won’t be the same now – I’m sure most Australian homes have air conditioning and women don’t have to wear dresses anymore – but I love stepping back in history and imagining what it might have been like.  The Thorn Birds does that wonderfully.  The characters also travel; they start out in New Zealand, and eventually go to London, Rome, and Greece, as well as different parts of Australia and different places I’ve probably forgotten.  Overall, the descriptions are gorgeous here and it’s very easy to see through the characters’ eyes.

I probably don’t need to tell you after all this that I loved the book, but I will anyway.  It was emotionally gripping and compelling and had me spellbound for a good 6 hours as I raced through it.  I definitely recommend this to anyone who wants to get lost in these characters and in a huge, decades-long saga.

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19 comments to Review: The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

  • It sounds great! I will always associate the Thorn Birds with the movie that my mom wouldn’t let me watch. I was too youn g and it was on past my 8 o’clock bedtime.

  • I read this book years ago and just loved it! I have often thought of rereading it! And the mini-series was awesome as well!

  • I read this one years ago and it was very popular at the time. My friends and I were totally immersed in Meggie’s world. I have no clue about the accuracy of the book, but I did really love it.

    As Marg says, the mini-series was really good too.

  • I probably read this book before you were even born. My mom had bought it and loved it and urged me to read it. I loved it too and remember being very caught up in the story.

  • I read this in high school right after the mini series with Richard Chamberlain (*sigh*) came out and loved it. I probably should reread it some time.

  • I first found “The Thorn Birds” at an age way too young to read that kind of material… so of course I was hooked! I used to spend summers at my grandmother’s house in the Sierra forest; I had nothing to occupy my time but never-ending exploration of the woods by day and reading my grandmother’s VERY eclectic library by night. That’s where I first found “The Thorn Birds” at the age of 12 or so. I was mesmerized! So grown-up! Of course I loved it, and read it over and over through the years. Your review is wonderful, thank you for bringing it back to me.

    If you want to try another completely engrossing saga set in Australia I HIGHLY recommend “The Moon Below” by Barbara Bickmore. A very different story, but that epic Australian tone is similar to “The Thorn Birds”.

  • Also, I see in your sidebar that you are currently reading “Burnt Shadows” by Kamila Shamsie? She is my favorite living author. I just wrote a review of that book on my own blog. I hope you enjoy the book, I can’t wait to read your review of it!

  • I saw the miniseries on TV, and after that I did not want to read the book. The whole scene where the priest was sexually attracted to the heroine’s 13-year-old self was just wayyy too much for me. But maybe it makes more sense in the book.

  • I loved this book too. I didn’t expect to enjoy it very much, but it drew me straight in. I’m so glad you liked it!

  • This sounds amazing. I love me a good family saga spanning generations.

  • The Thorn Birds has been around for awhile, and definitely should be read.. by me!!
    You have the I KEEP COMING BACK FOR MORE AWARD here:
    http://burtonreview.blogspot.com/2009/08/sunday-salon-do-not-miss.html
    Enjoy..

  • I’m so glad to see that you loved it too! I really enjoyed reading your summary and review.

  • I read this in high-school, and I confess that I found it very long and quite difficult to get into.

    Probably because I was very preoccupied with exams and life generally.

    Must give this book another read sometime. I think I will like this better the second time around

  • I remember my mom reading this when I was a kid. When she was about 150 pages from the end, it was one of those nights when we were being really demanding and she got us dinner (or told us we were on our own, there were leftovers) and told us not to bother her; she was going to her room to finish the book, and she pointedly told my sister and I that, as we were such voracious readers ourselves, she knew we understood how important it was to her to not be disturbed till she was done. And she disappeared for an hour or so. I’d never seen her do that before, and she never did it again.

  • In that way that things happen I was thinking about ‘The Thornbirds’ only yesterday for a totally non-Thornbirds reason. I was reading about past productions of ‘Hamlet’ and remembering the first ever production I saw where the Hamlet was Richard Chamberlain. I didn’t see the TV version, but I’ve always thought I ought to get round to the book. I didn’t realize that the author had written Roman books as well. I must definitely look out for those.

  • I have this one on my shelf, and have not yet read it. After your review, I will be moving it up in the pile. I, too, love family sagas, so this book sounds right up my alley. Thanks for the great review!

  • Holy cow did I LOVE this book the first time I read it! In fact, I had such a great “gripping read” experience with it, that I purchased the miniseries right away. It’s funny how challenging to your ideas (and ideals) about human relationships this book can be, when in reality, it really is about the boundaries WE set up between ourselves and others. Such a great read! Glad you reviewed it to remind me of a past favorite!

  • I just read this book about a month ago and I never reviewed it because I just wasn’t sure how to tackle it. There was so much going on, but I did love it! I was going to name my baby Dane after one of the characters but then I found out I’m having a girl.
    I think you did a good job of reviewing it.

  • Very interesting review. I’ll have to add this one to the TBR list!