The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Somehow, Les and I got to talking about The Thorn Birds a few months ago. I don’t even remember exactly what brought it up, but we both remembered loving it when we read it years ago. So, we decided to reread it together this fall. And through the course of our emails we’ve discovered that we don’t feel exactly about it today as we did then, when we loved it. I’m going to write my thoughts here, before I go read her thoughts, so interested to know her full reaction.
First of all, I remember being enraptured by Ralph de Bricassart. By his love for Meggie. By his lifelong undying affection and care. By the romantic interlude they enjoyed together, albeit briefly, while she was finding emotional restoration on a secluded island. That was then. 
This is now: I’m mad, mad, mad. Why the heck is he loyal to neither the priesthood nor Meggie? For goodness sake, Ralph, choose! Do you want to be true to your romantic love or your saintly love? This time around, his ambivalence infuriated me; I saw him not as the tower of strength with which I first viewed him. I saw him in all his human frailty, and it occurs to me that this, perhaps, is what Colleen McCullough intended to portray: a man who is deeply conflicted. Deeply, despite his best intentions, flawed. 
As, I come to think about it, we all are.
Well, I can’t speak for you. But I can say that every night I confess my sins, and every day I sin again. I don’t mean to. I don’t want to. But I can’t escape the flaws within my heart, just as Ralph can’t escape his. So I’m torn, between sympathy and scorn for him. For me.
Maybe I do love this book after all. Maybe I’m just looking at it with older eyes. Eyes which see more realistically, less romantically. 
The author says it best herself, in this passage with which I’ll close: “Each of us has something within us which won’t be denied, even if it makes us scream aloud to die. We are what we are, that’s all. Like the old Celtic legend of the bird with the thorn in its breast, singing its heart out and dying. Because it has to, it’s driven to. We can know what we do wrong even before we do it, but self-knowledge can’t affect or change the outcome, can it? Everyone singing his own little song, convinced it’s the most wonderful song the world has ever heard. Don’t you see? We create our own thorns, and never stop to count the cost. All we can do is suffer the pain, and tell ourselves it was well worth it.”

“That’s what I don’t understand. The pain.” He glanced down at her hand, so gently on his arm, hurting him so unbearably. “Why the pain, Meggie?”

“Ask God, Ralph,” said Meggie. “He’s the authority on pain, isn’t He? He made us what we are, He made the whole world. Therefore He made the pain, too.” (p. 390-391)

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34 thoughts on “The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough”

  1. This book had been lying about our house for years as I was growing up, always that orange cover staring, and I don't think anyone at home ever read it. But I was eager to know what you thought of it after the reread because who knows what we could've missed?

    I know what you mean about liking and not liking a book both at the same time, I just mentioned something about that today. I you meant reading with “older” eyes as having more reading wisdom and experience, I can vouch for the same. I remember having loved John Irving so much when I was younger. And then the last time I read him, years after having read more brilliant authors, I was a bit disappointed. Then again, I still loved him. Makes no sense, but I know you know. I'm wondering now how I would feel about Erich Segal. He's another author I devoured as a teen and have no urge to read him now, except probably rereading Love Story.

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  2. It's such an interesting experience to reread a once-loved book. Sometimes one's opinion doesn't change; sometimes one wonders,”what was I thinking that this meant so much to me?”

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  3. I come to John Irving late in life, having read bits and pieces of his work but never all of a book until this year. But, I clearly remember how powerful Erich Segal's Love Story was. Not only in print but I film as well. Some images of Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal will always be in my brain, such as when they have the snowball fight, or he's looking for her through the Music halls. Love Story was the only book if his I thought was effective, though.

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  4. Bellezza,

    It's interesting how your response to the book has changed in your second reading, and I suppose years later. No doubt our experiences have affected our views. For me, I've heard of The Thorn Birds for a long time, but still haven't read it. As a matter of fact, the book brings only one name to my mind: Richard Chamberlain. I'm really curious to see if your reread of Anna K. this time has changed your views over the years. 😉

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  5. That's so interesting – I read this book at about 18 the first time. Now, the more I think about Ralph, the more I agree with you. He needs to make a choice! Did he want Mary's money / priestly glory / Meggie's love? Though I think most of use would try to have it all!

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  6. Everyone associates Richard Chamberlin with The Thorn Birds, but I only saw him in Sho-Gun. In which he rocked.

    I've been thinking about Anna Karenina in light of The Thorn Birds for as you say, this time through I felt different empathy than when I was in my twenties. We'll talk when we post our reviews, eh? 🙂

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  7. I think that's such a good point: which is us doesn't want it all? Which of us isn't conflicted over our deepest desires? That's what McCullough seemed to point out to me this time through.

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  8. Look how many of us read bit when we were just entering, or in our early, teens. I suppose that's because of when it was published, but still I think a lot of young girls were swept off their feet by this story. Which is a deeply moving one.

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  9. We do see things differently as we age! The Thorn Birds was a favorite of mine way back when, too, and I have avoided revisiting in fear that it would not pass the 'test of time'. Les mentioned the miniseries in her post… perhaps that would be safer.

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  10. I agree with you completely. His other books did never live up to the beauty that was Love Story. I have a copy of Love Story still but have done away with all his other books. Although I remember being so immersed in The Class and Doctors, both of which I really enjoyed!

    Interestingly enough, I haven't seen the film, would you believe??

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  11. I read this book for the first time in January – I'd forgotten that part about the legend of the thorn bird. I thought McCullough was wonderful on the Australian landscape, but her characters were not so well-drawn. Never really warmed to Meggie, but still the book had its charms. Enjoyed your review.

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  12. I think I warmed more to Meggie as a child; I won't soo. Forget the opening passages of her brothers ruining her new china doll, or the nun beating her at school. It seems she lived a life of discontent, of being wounded, and to suffer the loss of he son would be almost unbearable on top of everything else. Glad you enjoyed this review focused on one mere aspect as it was.

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  13. Of course… save all the good stuff for that post. And BTW, I just checked that in my City, they're moving the release date up to Nov. 9, I think U.S. is still Nov. 16. So, there just might be a chance I'll see it before I post Nov. 15 Can't wait. 😉

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  14. The scenery alone looks incredible; I've heard that Levin is out if the picture though, quite literally, and I can't imagine the story without him. He's my favorite.

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  15. Does the title 'Thorn Birds' have anything to do with the flawed characters in the story?I only remember reading the first chapter when it first came out.
    I treasure both Anna Karenina and Love Story although I don't have a copy of Love Story anymore.

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  16. I, too, will never forget that opening scene with Meggie's brothers and her new doll. I was appalled by their behavior and was won over by Frank's love and kindness toward his younger sister.

    I'm not in the least bit sorry I reread this book, but I am disappointed that it wasn't as remarkable as it was the first time around. And after chatting with my mom, I've decided I won't watch the miniseries. She says RC was poorly cast for the role and BS overacts. I suspect it will feel dated and I'll be bored, especially since I just read the book.

    BTW, I've “introduced” myself to Arti. I've seen her comments here on your blog for a long, long time and decided it was high time we met. 🙂 I think you and I should plan a trip to Alberta (Banff, Jasper, Lake Louise?) and say hello in person. 🙂 Thanks for leading me to her lovely blog. 🙂

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  17. I absolutely LOVE The Thorn Birds and I'll keep it that way. I don't know that I've ever re-read a book, mainly because there is SO much more out there I must read and after reading this post I think perhaps my rule is good one. I don't want the characters to change for me. Although I read this book as a very young adult, more than 25 years ago, the characters I've carried with me. The favorite characters from books always stay with me. The passion and longing (not the circumstances of their relationship) has held a standard for me as one of the most romantic stories EVER! I will, however, watch a movie more than once and I have seen the mini-series a few times. It's a perfect rainy day-watch.

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  18. No, I think the thorn bird is actually a bird from the legend who impales itself. Much like Anna, in fact. I will have a review on that beloved book on November 15 along with Arti of Ripple Effects. I hope we can talk more about it then.

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  19. Les, that's so fun that you visited Arti! She's a wonderful blogger, person, and she reviews film more than anyone else I read. Wouldn't it be fun to meet her? Of course, I want to meet you first!

    I'm not that interested in watching the mini-series; I've never been particularly entranced with books made into movies. But, like you, I am glad I reread it. It does lack the impact one had reading it the first time, especially if one was in her twenties like we were. But, it is a book with much to think about. Much to evaluate. I'm glad we read it together.

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  20. Lori, I completely agree with you on your point that “the passion and longing, not the circumstances of their relationship, has held a standard for me…” It is very intense, and very sad, that they never could become a couple officially. Although that doesn't mean that the marriage of their hearts was any less valid. Tragic love stories such as these are some of my favorite literature. Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina, and The Awakening, are powerful stuff, as was The Thorn Birds.

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  21. Oooh, now there's a book I'd like to read again. I read The Awakening in my early 30s and thought it was quite good. Off to find my journal entry… 😉

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  22. I'm glad I visited her blog. It's funny how I can recognize a name in the comments on one of my favorite blogs and realize I've seen that name for several years, but have never once visited their blog. It's a treat to discover someone who shares the same interests and I look forward to reading more of her reviews (for both movies and books).

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  23. I watched the TV series at 15 – a desperately impressionable age, and the romance of it stuck with me and informed my sensibilities for years. Finally I read the book a couple of years ago. I loved the start but got fed up with the flaws in the writing for the back quarter or so. Unfortunately I was reading Lolita at the same time, and there were marked similarities between Humbert Humbert and Ralph de Bricassart…. But Ralph is a good man, just tormented by ambivalence, or at least by a human love that is as powerful as a spiritual one. I thought that part was its best feature – the torment is so understandable, even if frustrating.

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  24. Interesting how viewpoints change as we age, isn't it? I saw mine change over Gone With The Wind. My teenage self adored Scarlett for her strength and courage and loathed Melanie for her weakness and goodness. Now I see Scarlett for what she really was, a self-serving b—- and Melanie as a self-sacrificing, noble lady. It gives me hope when I see my viewpoints change so drastically. God isn't finished with me yet and is changing me slowly over the years to be a better person. For that I give Him thanks!

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