The First Man in Rome | Critical Review by Walter Clemons

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The First Man in Rome.
This section contains 653 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Carol E. Rinzler

Critical Review by Walter Clemons

SOURCE: "Bed of Thorns," in Newsweek, April 25, 1977, pp. 93, 96, 97.

In the following review, Clemons provides a brief analysis of The Thorn Birds and commentary on the novel's popular appeal.

It has, as they say, everything: three generations of suffering (from 1915 to 1969); an indomitable cast of dozens, who move from rags to riches (money doesn't bring happiness); scene shifts from a bleak New Zealand farm to a huge sheep ranch in the Australian outback to the inner chambers of the Vatican; sexual frustration and brief-lived bliss (the latter duly paid for in grief); plus fire, flood, drought, myxomatosis and World War II. Since The Thorn Birds has already sold to paperback for a record $1.9 million, a reviewer can only make a fool of himself by getting all hot and red in the face and protesting that it's junk. Better get out of its way and, as it rolls by, try to explain its appeal.

The Thorn Birds offers big, simplified emotions, startling coincidences and thumping hammer blows of fate. It is an old-fashioned family saga, featuring decades of tribulation on studded with dire forebodings that more often than not come true. One look at a newborn baby and a mother can predict her future: "I think she's always going to belong to herself." An imperious old woman throws a party on her 72nd birthday, announces she will die that night, does so—and because she is evil, her body decomposes faster than any in the watchers' experience.

The lives of the Cleary clan in this book may be tougher than yours or mine, but they are never afflicted with any humdrum waiting around for something awful to happen. The central character, Meggie, loves a breathtakingly handsome priest who is usually ringingly addressed by his full name—as in "You're the most beautiful man I've ever seen, Ralph de Bricassart." Meggie marries an unfeeling brute named Luke, who happens to look like Ralph, and gives birth to a daughter who grows up to become the toast of the London stage. Meggie also has a son by Father Ralph, who drops by to visit her on his way to becoming a cardinal, but her love-child is lost to her when he, in turn, decides to enter the priesthood. On hearing the news, "Meggie sat down. 'I think I've been struck by a retributory bolt of lighting.'"

They all talk like that. Colleen McCullough, a 39-year-old Australian, is described by her publisher as "exuberant but extraordinarily disciplined." Her little-noticed first novel, Tim, we're told, "went through ten drafts in three months before it satisfied her," but The Thorn Birds took longer. When she gets up a full head of steam, McCullough can write tirades the likes of which can seldom have been heard on land or sea. Try this tongue-twister, for instance—Meggie on the subject of men: "You're all the same great big hairy moths bashing yourselves to pieces after a silly flame behind a glass so clear your eyes don't see it … You're nothing but a romantic, dreaming fool, Ralph de Bricassart! You have no more idea what life is all about than the moth I called you! No wonder you became a priest! You couldn't live with the ordinariness of life if you were an ordinary man any more than ordinary man Luke does!"

McCullough's title refers to her characters' penchant for impaling themselves on self-induced miseries. "Like the old Celtic legend of the bird with the thorn in its breast, singing its heart out and dying," Meggie lays it on the line to Ralph. "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." Company loves misery, and the publishers are probably justified in their gamble that readers by the millions will press The Thorn Birds to their bosoms.

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This section contains 653 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Carol E. Rinzler