Colleen McCullough has the kind of life I wanted to live. She was insanely popular but didn’t go on tour or have much of a public life. I guess she wrote a bunch of books, but probably didn’t need to. The Thorn Birds probably makes enough money every year to sustain a slightly indulgent lifestyle. It is the bestselling book of all time to come from Australia, and is that rarest of things, an international bestseller. I now know that she was also a scientist, who pursued her career long past needing the money.
The Thorn Birds was as commonly seen in houses as bread when I was a teenager, even living abroad, and that book also stands out for me as one of a dozen that everybody was reading the same time, and one of a handful I thought deserved every inch of its success. (A couple of others in that exclusive group are Perfume and Pillars of the Earth).
In recaps of her career this past week it’s been unfairly compared to books like Fifty Shades of Grey, which makes me think that reviewers have not read or don’t remember it well. It was a romance, of course, but made of slowly simmering passions left on the back burner for a decade before they were brought to a boil. It is also, for the first third or so, simply a wonderful growing up and coming of age story, for both its heroine and Anglicized Australia. Maybe there’s sexism or anti-genre sentiment in bracketing the two together, a hallmark great novel with a titillating accidental bestseller. But maybe it’s just the laziness of reporting.
I admit that when I saw the news of Ms. McCullough’s passing, I had not thought of The Thorn Birds in decades, but once prompted, I recalled several scenes vividly. What better testament can a book get than being memorable?
She is now known as a person with a bad obit. Nevertheless, she was a remarkable and inspiring person, both for what she did and how she went about it.