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Bygone Bestsellers - Colleen McCullough's THE THORN BIRDS

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Bygone Bestsellers is an Interabang project devoted to works with enduring value, going beyond name recognition or Top 10 lists from years ago. In some cases the recognition is fading; in others, TV or movie adaptations have kept the name familiar. These books’ heyday may have passed, but they offer fresh rewards for today’s readers. Each season Kyle will recommend four of them, all still in print decades after they first landed on bestseller lists.

Click here to read last week's Bygone Bestseller: Edna Ferber's GIANT.

The Thorn Birds: A Novel Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780061990472
Published: William Morrow Paperbacks - May 11th, 2010

THE THORN BIRDS is behind JAWS as the #6 bestselling novel of the 1970s in the USA. It is the decade’s top seller by a female author. Colleen McCullough published two dozen more books, but none sold 30 million copies like THE THORN BIRDS, nor were they adapted into a miniseries second only to ROOTS as a historic TV ratings success. Not bad for a book written in McCullough’s off hours when she was a research assistant at Yale.


Like many novels that nestle into memory, THE THORN BIRDS is a love story. The conflict between the lovers is the man’s ambition, an insatiable drive for power and status in the Catholic church. He’s a priest – so there’s that obstacle – but Meggie, the woman who yearns for him for a decade or three, is no fool. A survivor, born into the hard-luck side of a prosperous family, Meggie centers the book and keeps it from turning into the tale of a fool who spends her life waiting for a man she can’t have. (For one thing, she does “have” him, during an unforgettable island getaway.)


McCullough’s writing is OK, but her plotting and themes are remarkable. This is one of those cases where a journeyman author constructs a story with the whiffs of legend. In an essay, the brilliant Germaine Greer calls THE THORN BIRDS “the best bad book I ever read.” The flaws she cites are primarily about the book’s depiction of its setting, the Australian outback – not its storytelling. After describing how she stayed up all night with the book, “utterly engrossed,” Greer let slip that she has read it again in recent years and felt the same. She finds more “best” than “bad” in THE THORN BIRDS. That’s about right.