A setting sun over a field turning everything orange

About the Book

Title: The Thorn Birds
Published: 1977
Swoonworthy Scale: 6

Cover Story: Late ‘70s Realness
BFF Charm: Meh
Talky Talk: The Stuff of Celtic Myth
Bonus Factors: Epic Time Span, Sheep, Sexy Priests
Relationship Status:  Guilty Pleasure

WARNING! This book review contains spoilers for the 1977 bestseller. While we normally try to avoid spoilers at FYA, this book is 37 years old, was made into a TV miniseries, and much like V.C. Andrews, has been the sort of book you hide from your parents for decades. I have denoted where the spoilers truly begin.

Cover Story: Late ‘70s Realness

I feel like this is one of those classic late 70s covers – lots of yellow and orange tones with blocky fonts and semi-realistic illustrations. Throwback Thursday, you can’t hold a candle to the way this sort of cover transports us to the past!

The Deal:

The Thorn Birds takes place over sixty years and follows the Cleary family from the time the sole daughter, Meggie, is four, through her old age. The Cleary family lives on Drogheda, a vast sheep farm in Australia.

The family is headed by Paddy, a working-class man, and Fee (Fiona), a once-aristocratic woman who married beneath her rank and produced eight children. At the beginning of the story, Paddy receives an invitation from his wealthy sister, Mary Carson, to live and work on Drogheda.

Drogheda is where the family meets Father Ralph de Bricassart, a handsome young priest. Much to Mary Carson’s dismay, as Meggie grows into a beautiful woman, Ralph’s attentions to Meggie are less than holy. It’s not the “unholy” part that bothers Mary Carson so much as she wants Ralph to herself.
The story follows Mary’s machinations, Meggie and Ralph’s love, and the rest of the Cleary family throughout the next forty years.


I first read this when I was a teenager, fresh off the “I’m not Catholic anymore” boat, so reading a book about a Catholic priest having a romantic affair with a young girl seemed properly rebellious. (Until my mom saw me buying a copy at the thrift store and remarked on how much she enjoyed the mini-series.)

Unfortunately, this is one of those books that seemed so epic and romantic when I was a young teen, but as an adult, I can’t believe how shockingly awful parts of it were. (I don’t mean “awful” as in poorly written – I mean “awful” as in “OH MY GOD, WHAT KIND OF MESSAGE ARE YOU SENDING?!”)

First of all, Ralph is a grown man when he meets Meggie. Meggie is 4. He is charmed by the little girl, but as she grows older, he develops a romantic and sexual interest in her. Color me old fashioned, but I don’t want a priest who changed my diapers and knew when I got my first period to be lusting after me when I hit sixteen.


Meggie, for her part, is no better. After Ralph leaves Drogheda with Mary Carson’s significant bequest (her design to keep Ralph and Meggie apart – not out of concern, but pure jealousy), Meggie marries a man named Luke who bears a striking resemblance to Ralph. He ends up being a cheap douchebag who basically rapes her, but refuses to have children, so what does Meggie do? Convinces him to have sex without a condom (a “French letter”) and promptly gets knocked up. She ends up generally disliking her daughter, who is blunt and cool and not exactly the be-all end-all solution Meggie had hoped for.

But wait, there’s more – when Justine, her daughter, is a baby, the people Meggie and Justine are staying with arrange for her to take an island retreat so she can have some time to herself. Who shows up? FATHER RALPH. And then they get down to the sexy times, at which point ANOTHER baby is conceived. This time, it’s a boy, and it doesn’t matter that it’s not Luke’s – because remember, he and Ralph look so much alike! Meggie sleeps with Luke upon her return, and no one suspects a thing (except for everyone who knows the two of them are in love). Ralph goes back to Rome and the Church.

Of course, Meggie bonds with this baby much easier than she ever did with Justine because IT IS THE CHILD OF THE SAINTED RALPH, and surprise, he grows up to be a priest. (Justine grows up to be an actress, and although she’s kind of a jerk, I like her the best out of anyone in the book.) Ralph is willfully blind to the fact that Dane is his son. I guess he doesn’t like math. Or mirrors.

And then, just as Dane, Meggie and Ralph’s son, becomes a priest and Ralph’s mentee, he goes on vacation, saves someone from drowning, and dies. That’s after several of Meggie’s brothers die, one goes to jail for thirty years, and Paddy dies.

This is one cheerful book.

BFF Charm: Meh

BFF charm with a :-| face

For all of the reasons above, no one in this book is particularly likeable. That’s not to say this is a bad book, but friendship isn’t borne out of wanting to slap someone silly.

Swoonworthy Scale: 6

Here’s where I am a total hypocrite: for all the major problems outlined in my above rant summary, the romance in this book is surprisingly captivating. Forbidden love will always be compelling to me, and the scenes on the island were serious brain-candy. It’s less interesting to me as an adult, but when I was a teenager, oh ho, you best believe I wanted to be on that island.

Talky Talk: The Stuff of Celtic Myth

McCullough writes some beautiful prose.

“There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain… Or so says the legend.”

Bonus Factor: Epic Time Span

Various stages of a seedling growing in dirt

I love multigenerational books, and this one does an excellent job of describing 3-4 generations of the Cleary family. By the end of the book, the characters feel like old friends, and it’s fascinating watching them grow. I particularly loved when Fee and Meggie, in Fee’s old age, had a discussion about the parentage of their respective sons.

Bonus Factor: Sheep

A bunch of sheep in a field


Bonus Factor: Sexy Priests

The sexy priest from Fleabag (Andrew Scott)

As I said before, the sexy priest trope really worked with my teen rebellion (and even now, I have a healthy appreciation of Father Kieran on The Originals). I was raised Catholic, and while I had never, ever met an attractive priest in my life (my favorite was the priest who was a fan of the 49ers and would keep his sermons short when there was a game on), the sacrilege appealed to me. Of course, it was really disappointing to find out that my mother found this forbidden romance compelling as well, so you win some, you lose some.

Relationship Status: Guilty Pleasure

Book, I know there’s a lot that is wrong with you, but that will absolutely not stop me from meeting you under the bleachers when I feel like rebelling.

FTC Full Disclosure: I bought my own copy fifteen years ago at a thrift shop. I received neither money nor a pet unicorn for writing this review, despite how hard I wished for one.  The Thorn Birds is available now.