Book Review: The Ladies of Missalonghi by Colleen McCullough

Title: The Ladies of Missalonghi
Author: Colleen McCullough
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 1987
Length: 192 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Sometimes fairy tales can come true–even for plain, shy spinsters like Missy Wright. Neither as pretty as cousin Alicia nor as domineering as mother Drusilla, she seems doomed to a quiet life of near poverty at Missalonghi, her family’s pitifully small homestead in Australia’s Blue Mountains. But it’s a brand new century–the twentieth–a time for new thoughts and bold new actions. And Missy Wright is about to set every self-righteous tongue in the town of Byron wagging. Because she has just set her sights on a mysterious, mistrusted, and unsuspecting stranger… who just might be Prince Charming in disguise.

After coming across a mention of The Ladies of Missalonghi online, I decided to give it a try once I saw the audiobook available via my library. This short book is enjoyable in many ways, but it also shows its age a bit, and has a troubling reputation as well. (See my quibbles section below…)

Set in the early 1900s in a small town in Australia, The Ladies of Missalonghi focuses on the sad little family living in a run-down house named Missalonghi on the shabby side of town. The town of Byron is dominated by the Hurlingford family, who own pretty much all of the desirable land and every local business. The nasty truth of the family is that thanks to an edict from its founding father who first established Byron, only males in the family inherit financially, while women descendents get a house and five acres of land. However, the houses and land have become worse and worse over the generations, and Hurlingford women who don’t marry well, become widowed, or (gasp) remain spinsters are doomed to a life of poverty and dependence.

Main character Missy Wright lives with her widowed mother Drusilla and her elderly aunt Octavia, and the three eke out the barest of livings. Missy is considered plain and unmarriageable, long past whatever youthful prime she might have had. To economize, the women dress in brown (appropriate for any occasion, and it doesn’t show dirt), have a very fixed routine of household chores, and rely on the condescending patronage of their richer relatives for meager treats and hand-outs.

When Missy meets a rough-hewn stranger and learns that he’s bought land in the adjacent valley, her imagination takes off — especially thanks to the romantic novels the town’s new librarian has been sharing with her. After a mild health scare, Missy decides to take matters into her own hands, throw off the burden of obedience and family deference, and pursue a life of adventure and love… even if she has to scheme and lie to get it.

While engaging in many ways, I do need to point out a few quibbles:


As I mentioned earlier, the book’s age shows in some of the depictions and dialogue. I don’t have a problem with historical fiction portraying an era’s inherent sexual inequalities, hang-ups, class issues, etc, but I actually feel that this book smacks a little too heavily of the 1980s. Published in 1987, The Ladies of Missalonghi has a love interest who’s the stereotypical bad boy in many ways, coming out with statements and attitudes that just wouldn’t fly today… and in historical fiction written now, I think authors tend to make their heroes a little less sexist/asshole-ish. If that makes any sense.

BIG SPOILER: There’s a weird supernatural element that’s revealed toward the end that makes no sense at all, bringing a ghost into the mix in the strangest way possible, then using that ghost as the explanation for Missy’s pursuit of freedom. Seriously, I don’t get it at all. The ghost in question appears as a real person to Missy, and provides Missy with books, legal documents, a new dress and hat, and even comes to tea at Missalonghi, where she interacts with Drusilla and Octavia. Again… I don’t get it.

Finally, I need to point out the plagiarism allegations that plague this book, specifically, that Colleen McCullough basically took the plot of The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery, tweaked it a bit and moved it to Australia, and published it as her own. Colleen McCullough denied the allegations, but suggested that “subconscious recollection” was at play — that she must have read the book at some point and inadvertently incorporated elements without realizing where they’d come from. The stories track so closely (with key differences being that Missy’s mother is kind and loving, and that Missy knows that her health crisis isn’t real and lies to her love interest) that it’s impossible to believe that the similarities are purely accidental.

Having read The Blue Castle recently, the shared plot elements are very obvious — and I have to say, if I had to choose between the two books, The Blue Castle wins hands-down.


All that aside, there’s plenty to like about The Ladies of Missalonghi. There are some clever twists as Missy begins to assert herself, including her scheming to undermine the terrible male relatives who neglect and cheat the vulnerable women of the family. The descriptions of the setting are lovely, and there are moments of clever dialogue and sly social digs that make it fun.

The audiobook is narrated by Davina Porter, known to Outlander fans as the wonderful narrator of all Outlander series audiobooks, and she’s always a treat to listen to.

Overall, I’m not sorry to have read The Ladies of Missalonghi and I enjoyed listening to it, but the troublesome aspects make it a hard book to truly love.

And I have to say, the whole “marriage due to a medical crisis that turns out to be false” plot is handled much better in The Blue Castle, as is so much else about the basics of the plot.

Shelf Control #303: The Touch by Colleen McCullough

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: The Touch
Author: Colleen McCullough
Published: 2003
Length: 624 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Not since “The Thorn Birds” has Colleen McCullough written a novel of such broad appeal about a family and the Australian experience as “The Touch.”At its center is Alexander Kinross, remembered as a young man in his native Scotland only as a shiftless boilermaker’s apprentice and a godless rebel. But when, years later, he writes from Australia to summon his bride, his Scottish relatives quickly realize that he has made a fortune in the gold fields and is now a man to be reckoned with.

Arriving in Sydney after a difficult voyage, the sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Drummond meets her husband-to-be and discovers to her dismay that he frightens and repels her. Offered no choice, she marries him and is whisked at once across a wild, uninhabited countryside to Alexander’s own town, named Kinross after himself. In the crags above it lies the world’s richest gold mine.

Isolated in Alexander’s great house, with no company save Chinese servants, Elizabeth finds that the intimacies of marriage do not prompt her husband to enlighten her about his past life — or even his present one. She has no idea that he still has a mistress, the sensual, tough, outspoken Ruby Costevan, whom Alexander has established in his town, nor that he has also made Ruby a partner in his company, rapidly expanding its interests far beyond gold. Ruby has a son, Lee, whose father is the head of the beleaguered Chinese community; the boy becomes dear to Alexander, who fosters his education as a gentleman.

Captured by the very different natures of Elizabeth and Ruby, Alexander resolves to have both of them. Why should he not? He has the fabled “Midas Touch” — a combination of curiosity, boldness and intelligence that he applies to every situation, and which fails him only when it comes to these two women.

Although Ruby loves Alexander desperately, Elizabeth does not. Elizabeth bears him two daughters: the brilliant Nell, so much like her father; and the beautiful, haunting Anna, who is to present her father with a torment out of which for once he cannot buy his way. Thwarted in his desire for a son, Alexander turns to Ruby’s boy as a possible heir to his empire, unaware that by keeping Lee with him, he is courting disaster.

The stories of the lives of Alexander, Elizabeth and Ruby are intermingled with those of a rich cast of characters, and, after many twists and turns, come to a stunning and shocking climax. Like “The Thorn Birds,” Colleen McCullough’s new novel is at once a love story and a family saga, replete with tragedy, pathos, history and passion. As few other novelists can, she conveys a sense of place: the desperate need of her characters, men and women, rootless in a strange land, to create new beginnings.

How and when I got it:

I’ve had a battered paperback on my shelf for years — I don’t remember specifically buying this book, but I’m guessing it came from a library sale at some point in the last 10 years.

Why I want to read it:

I’m sure I picked this book up solely based on the fact that it’s by Colleen McCullough. I will never forget the experience of reading The Thorn Birds for the first time! Since then, I’ve only read one other book by her, but once again, I was impressed by her ability to bring Australia to life on the page and to create such dynamic characters and epic plots.

In terms of The Touch, it sounds grand and sweeping and tragic — just how I like my historical fiction! I’m glad I just stumbled across my copy while reorganizing my shelves. It was a good reminder that (a) I own this book and (b) I do intend to read it!

The only other book I’ve read by Colleen McCullough is Morgan’s Run (published in 2000), but I’d welcome other recommendations!

And as for The Touch

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Flashback Friday: Morgan’s Run by Colleen McCullough

It’s time, once again, for Flashback Friday…

Flashback Friday is a chance to dig deep in the darkest nooks of our bookshelves and pull out the good stuff from way back. As a reader, a blogger, and a consumer, I tend to focus on new, new, new… but what about the old favorites, the hidden gems? On Flashback Fridays, I want to hit the pause button for a moment and concentrate on older books that are deserving of attention.

If you’d like to join in, here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My pick for this week’s Flashback Friday:


Morgan’s Run by Colleen McCullough

(published 2000)

My go-to book by Colleen McCullough would probably be The Thorn Books. I read The Thorn Birds many, many years ago, but it still remains a point of reference for me in many ways. Who can forget Father Ralph and Meggie? (Insert big, romantic sigh right here…) Still, a more recent book by Colleen McCullough had quite an impact on me, and that book is Morgan’s Run.

From Amazon:

It was one of the greatest human experiments ever undertaken: to populate an unknown continent with the criminals of English society. For Richard Morgan, twelve months as a prisoner on the high seas would be just the beginning in a soul-trying test to survive in a hostile new land where, against all odds, he would find a new love and a new life. From the dank cells of England’s prisons to the unforgiving frontier of the eighteenth-century outback, Morgan’s Run is the epic tale of one man whose strength and character helped settle a country and define its future.

Morgan’s Run is a terrifically detailed historical novel, telling the tale of the prisoner transports from England to the Australian penal colonies through the experiences of a remarkable individual. Lead character Richard Morgan is an honorable man, falsely accused and convicted, who suffers unimaginable horrors during the sea voyage and the struggle to survive in a harsh, undeveloped land. I learned a great deal about the experiences of the transported convicts and the early days of English settlement down under, but what really made this an engrossing tale for me was the more personal story of Richard and his challenges, sufferings, and survival.

For those who enjoy historical fiction, I heartily recommend Morgan’s Run. And of course, if you’ve never read The Thorn Birds, read that one too!

So, what’s your favorite blast from the past? Leave a tip for your fellow booklovers, and share the wealth. It’s time to dust off our old favorites and get them back into circulation! 

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join in the Flashback Friday bloghop, post about a book you love on your blog, and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!