The first time I read Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, I was about eleven years old and volunteering as a library-cart-girl at an old folks’ home. Please save your praise on the latter point; even at the age of eleven I knew I wasn’t going to get into a decent college from a Canadian hick town without performative volunteer work. I was there to use the elderly, not to serve them. Anyway, the first thing you learn about old people when engaged in such an act of questionable good works is: Old People Read Smut. They do! They love it. I could not keep anything vaguely bodice-rippy in stock. Hey, struggling novelists of America: write some Depression-themed erotica and just wait for the Werther’s Original-scented twenties to start rolling in.
No, no, I love old people, really I do. I just wish they would stop voting.
Anyway, The Thorn Birds was our most popular title. And, on re-read, I can see why! This must be our most Classic of Classic Trash selections yet: foreign land, sweeping cross-generational saga, six hundred and eighty-eight pages in paperback, forbidden love (and not just “oh, he’s married” forbidden! BINDING SACRED VOWS forbidden!), illegitimate children, and a weird, evolutionarily dubious metaphor about a made-up bird. This is what we professional trash-readers live for!
Your particular enjoyment of The Thorn Birds may be linked to where you sit on the priests/sexiness matrix. If you find the idea of priests sexy, this is going to be a fun billion pages. If, however, you find priests off-putting and completely lacking in erotic appeal, you’ll still have a good time, but with a certain amount of ew along the way. I fall into the second category, but that’s probably because the Catholic priests of my childhood were way more Ratzinger than Ralph, if you know what I mean. “Curious, how many priests were handsome as Adonis, had the sexual magnetism of Don Juan.” I sense there’s been a significant decline in the young, sexy priest department since the majority of said demographic opted to instead live fulfilling gay lives in major urban centers. (Even the actors playing young, sexy priests! Love you, Richard Chamberlain.)
Now, our beloved protagonists are Irish immigrants, of course. Honestly, I don’t know why anyone bothers to write sweeping cross-generational sagas of forbidden love about any other group of people. We Irish have it all: massive guilt complexes, promiscuity, addictive personalities, and a complete inability to ever let anything fucking go, ever. It makes for good copy. If you’re not convinced, pick up one of those Maeve Binchy novels you buy for your mom at Christmas, and try to picture the characters hailing from Wellfleet instead. What about a German Scarlett O’Hara? Morgen ist ein anderer Tag? That’s just plain menacing.
Our heroine is pretty much there to wring tears from your cold-black heart. You can tell that right away, since the novel opens with a four-year-old Meggie tearfully witnessing her birthday present’s willful destruction. Well, get used to it, Meggie, because your mother will yell at you for getting lice; the nuns are going to beat the tar out of you; your little brother is going to die of croup; your father will be burned alive; your other brother will go to prison for murder; yet another brother will be suffocated to death by a giant boar while discovering your father’s body; you’re going to fall in love with a priest; you’ll get to make out for, like, a second; the priest will be separated from you by the machinations of an crafty dead woman; you’ll marry a complete jerk (have fun figuring out what sex is on your wedding night!); you’ll cheat on the jerk with the priest; the priest will immediately impregnate you; the kid will grow up to also become a priest; and then he’ll drown. Oh, and after the funeral? The original priest will die in your arms. AH, THE RICH PAGEANTRY OF LIFE.
Sometimes, one wonders what sort of intervention would be necessary to keep disaster out of the lives of people like this. A good prenup (Meggie, do not sign anything over to Luke without independent counsel!) would work wonders. Also, condoms. A copy of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”? A scrip for Wellbutrin? PENICILLIN? Just not being completely self-sabotaging every day of your life?
If I’m being hard on The Thorn Birds it’s because I think that the world is bad enough without creating purposely depressing art, but, you know, the book is actually pretty great. And, well, “no one carried a pound of superfluous flesh, in spite of the vast quantities of starchy food,” so they had that going for them, at least. Silver linings, my dears.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS AND ONE EXCERPT WITHOUT CONTEXT
• Okay, have you read My Brilliant Career? Because THAT is a fantastic book by an Australian author that you can read openly in public without sniveling.
• Did you know that John Waters has fantastic taste in literature? Because he does!
• Have you met any sexy priests?
• Are you descended from Irish immigrants? Have you ever let anything go, ever?
• Does naming your sheep station after Drogheda, the site of Cromwell’s notorious siege, qualify as letting things go, or not? I could see the validity of either interpretation.
• Do you like Maeve Binchy? They’re super middle-brow, and all kinds of fun. Start with Light a Penny Candle.
• Did you get lice? I never got lice, but I constantly had paranoid fantasies about it in grade school. No one ever believes the teachers when they tell you it’s not a Beacon of Shame and Disgrace.
• And, of course, Meggie’s mother never told her about menstruation, so the priest had to. Are people’s mothers still dropping the ball on that, ever?
• “Naked, Father Ralph stepped off the veranda to stand on the barbered lawn with his arms raised above his head, eyes closed; he let the rain pour over him in warm, probing, spearing runnels, an exquisite sensation on bare skin. It was very dark. But he was still flaccid.”
For next time, let’s do Valley of the Horses. While Clan of the Cave Bear didn’t live up to its smut hype, reliable sources have advised that Valley of the Horses is where Jean M. Auel unleashes the dirty.
Previously: Clan of the Cave Bear and The Secret Circle
Nicole Cliffe is the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.