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Mary McCarthy, The group (#BookReview)

June 30, 2019

Book coverMy reading group has a few loose “rules” for choosing our reads, but one of the more rigid ones is that each year we like to read at least one classic. This year’s first classic – yes, another is coming – was Mary McCarthy’s The group. As I wrote in last week’s Monday Musings, it was published in 1963 and became a New York Times best-seller. I was initially uncertain about this choice, because I had read it and there are so many classics I still haven’t read, but, as it turned out, I was glad to read it again. This is because it is a true classic, by which I mean it’s a book that you can read again, at a different time in your life, and find new richness.

For those of you who don’t know the story, it centres on the lives of eight women from Vassar College’s Class of ’33 (of which McCarthy herself was a member, so she knew whereof she wrote – Bill!) The novel follows their lives for the next seven years as they, variously, marry, divorce, have children, find jobs, and in the case of one, die. In doing so, it also evokes their era beautifully. This was a time when America was coming out of the Depression, when women’s expectations about their lives were starting to change, when medicine was starting to assert its authoritarian self, when Trotskyism was attracting the radical intelligentsia, and when Europe was moving into World War 2. Our eight women – Kay, Lakey, Polly, Dottie, Priss, Libby, Pokey and Helena – having received a liberal Vassar-style education, are engaged in the issues of their day. Indeed, the role of education is one of the themes of the novel. Early in the novel, Kay recognises that:

That was the big thing they taught you at Vassar: keep your mind open and always ask for the evidence, even from your own side.

Late in the novel, Norine, a friend of the group, and also Vassar ’33, voices the challenge their education has posed for them: “our Vassar education made it tough for me to accept my womanly role”. Some, of course, found it easier to accept than others.

[SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT FOR THE NEXT PARAGRAPH ONLY, BUT THIS IS A CLASSIC SO I’M INCLUDING IT]

I loved the novel – the satire, the writing, the details, the individuation of the characters. What was not to like? Well, there are flaws for some readers. It doesn’t have a strong plot, and the structure is episodic, so that just as you get into one person’s story, you leave her to move onto another. This can be alienating for readers who love to emotionally engage with their characters. I can see all this but, for me, they are not overriding issues. Firstly, while there isn’t a strong plot, there is a narrative trajectory that sees relationships develop and change over time as the girls mature from new graduates to experienced women. Also, the novel commences with the wedding of a character, who recurs more frequently than do others as the book progresses, and it neatly concludes with her funeral. Secondly, despite the episodic approach, I engaged with the lives of each character as she came into focus for a chapter or so. Of course, some engaged me more than others, and, in fact, McCarthy gives some more time than others. What made McCarthy’s approach work for me were the ideas being explored through the various characters, and the writing used to do this. Evocative and/or witty writing expressing interesting ideas or viewpoints will get me every time.

So, for example, the book contains wonderful set pieces that seem to just keep coming, including Dottie’s deflowering and the sociology of the “pessary”, Priss’s (shock! horror!) breast-feeding in hospital under the instruction of her paediatrician husband, Priss versus Norine on child-rearing, Hatton the butler’s management of “his” family, Kay’s time in a mental hospital, to name just a few. These vignettes – which provide such insight into the lifestyles, the political interests, health and medicine, and so on, of these women – make the novel a rich source for social history of the times. Being educated, and generally of a liberal bent, most of the group are actively engaged in the political issues of their day. Some support Roosevelt’s New Deal, while those more radical become involved in socialism, Trotskyism in particular. There are references to World War 2, and the tensions between the America Firsters (sound familiar?) and those who thought America should join the war.

Gender is also an issue. Educated they may be, but these women find themselves, more often than not, controlled by men in what was still a patriarchal society. The women believe that:

It was very important … for a woman to preserve her individuality; otherwise she might not hold her husband.

But the truth is somewhat different. Kay is mischievously committed to a mental hospital by her husband, without her knowledge, and finds she needs his agreement to be discharged, while Priss

did not recommend sacrifice, having meekly given up her job and her social ideals for Sloan’s sake. It was now too late, because of Stephen [her son], but she was convinced she had made a mistake.

And then, as you expect from a classic, these more temporal concerns are wrapped up in bigger, more universal themes, such as juggling love and friendship, managing relationships and work, balancing theory versus practice, or navigating the gap between appearance and reality. Our characters reflect the gamut of human nature, being, variously, conservative, radical, idealistic, pragmatic, confident, kind, empathetic, proud, manipulating, ambitious, pompous, opinionated, naive. You name it, you are likely to find it amongst the eight.

Besides its rich content is the writing. It’s so sly and satiric that it carries you on regardless of the story:

Now, in the chapel, they rearranged their fur pieces and smiled at each other, noddingly, like mature little martens and sables: they had been right, the hardness was only a phase; it was certainly a point for their side that the iconoclast and scoffer was the first of the little band to get married.

Moreover, McCarthy can skewer character with just a few words. Candace Bushnell, in her Introduction to my edition, writes that “Readers who desire ‘likeable characters’ in their fiction above all else may be disturbed to find that every one of her characters is flawed.” This is true, and is, in a way, what I liked best. There’s no perfection here, there’s just young women struggling to make lives for themselves with an education that didn’t always make it easy for them to live in the world they found themselves. Here are couple of McCarthy’s character descriptions:

she had an image of herself as a high-bred, tempestuous creature, a sort of Arab steed in an English sporting primitive. (Libby)

fat cheerful New York society girl with big red cheeks and yellow hair, who talked like a jolly beau of the McKinley period, in imitation of her yachtsman father. (Pokey)

a solemn, ashy-haired little girl who looked like a gopher and who felt it her duty to absorb every bit of word-of-mouth information that pertained to consumer problems. (Priss)

In the last chapter, Polly, the most sympathetic of the women, thinks “how young and superstitious they had all been … and how little they had changed.” Perhaps, though I think she’s being a bit hard and that some wisdom had been achieved. Regardless, the ending, when a certain male character gets his comeuppance, is delicious – and was loved by the members of my group!

Mary McCarthy
The group
London: Virago (Hachette Digital), 2009 (Orig. ed. 1963)
438pp.
ISBN: 9780748126934

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Neil@kalleroo permalink
    July 1, 2019 12:38 am

    I’m half way through, being prompted by your blog on banned books. It seems to me that there is a gentle mist of melancholy hovering over the story. Somehow things are just not as good as they should be. Makes me feel a little sad.

    And I’m still trying to work out why the book was banned!

    • July 1, 2019 8:13 am

      Thanks Neil. Yes, I guess there is a bit but for me the satire helped overcome that.

      As for the banning, I think Dottie’s deflowering had a big part in that. It’s interesting how far we’ve come – in our lifetimes – that regard, isn’t it?

  2. July 1, 2019 2:58 am

    This sounds very good. Over the past few years I have come to appreciate books that are episodic and not too plot driven. The issues regarding gender roles seem astounding. Yet this was not that long ago.

    • July 1, 2019 8:15 am

      It’s a wonderful insight into that just-prewar era Brian. And I guess it reminds how much the way set us back… The fifties were way more conservative than the thirties, I believe.

  3. July 1, 2019 5:29 am

    Yes. Characters MUST BE flawed. That is, if they are to have any credibility …

  4. July 1, 2019 7:45 am

    I was so pleased to read your comprehensive account of The Group. It’s one of my favourites. And yes, flawed characters – you bet.

    • July 1, 2019 8:22 am

      Thanks Carmel. I can imagine you’d like this, given its satirical tone. Glad you enjoyed my write-up.

  5. Desley Deacon permalink
    July 1, 2019 9:16 am

    As a fan of McCarthy you have probably also read her first book, The Company She Keeps (1942). It is delicious. I will be publishing a book on her marriages, love affairs and friendship with Hannah Arendt next year (she had four husbands).

    • July 1, 2019 10:46 am

      Oh thanks Desley, no I haven’t, though many in my reading group, me included, felt we’d love to read more of her work. A new book on her life sounds interesting.

  6. July 1, 2019 9:30 am

    I enjoyed this book very much. I found it interesting how the author seemed to have favourite characters herself. The pessarary episode was something I hadn’t heard of before and probably had something to do with it being banned also, at least in America! I think this book was and continues to be important.

    • July 1, 2019 10:45 am

      Thanks Pam, glad you liked it too … wonder why you were sent into moderation? Perhaps because you use a bad word “pessary”!!

  7. July 1, 2019 12:00 pm

    Oh my what a trip down memory lane. I read this at age 18, 1966 and thought it quite realistic – like how would I know? – and daring. I might read it again – so many books!

    • July 1, 2019 1:56 pm

      Haha, Becky. I love that “like how would I know”. I read it in my early to mid 20s, and feel the same. There’s so much I would have missed or not fully comprehended then.

  8. July 1, 2019 1:19 pm

    All the best writers write out of lived experience. That’s my opinion, anyway! I had no idea The Group was a classic, I thought it was only famous for being banned. I’ll have to find a copy. I do struggle though with the concept of ‘mischievously’ (and it’s disheartening how many audibook readers mispronounce that) committing someone to a mental hospital. I’d need a lot of persuasion not to use ‘maliciously’ (as in the sad case of Eve Langley).

    • July 1, 2019 2:03 pm

      I know Bill – hence my SPECIAL reference to you. You are becoming legend for your viewpoint! Haha.

      As for “classic”, my definition – particularly for the AWW Challenge – is loose, but in the case of The Group I think it fits a tighter definition – it is over 50 years old, is still being published (including in the Virago Modern Classics edition), and in fact, GoodReads lists 71 editions published throughout the decades. So, yes, I’d say a classic.

      You’ll have to read the book to see why I wrote “mischievously”. I thought long and hard about it – I had various words there, including no descriptor, because in most cases it is completely malicious, but here it was a little different. BTW I agree with you reading the pronunciation of the word. One of many that people get wrong, eh? Oh, and BTW too, thanks for reading my review so closely that you asked that question.

  9. July 2, 2019 11:51 am

    Thank you for sharing this delightful review. I want to read this as well.

  10. buriedinprint permalink
    July 10, 2019 4:25 am

    How refreshing that must have been at that time, to have met some real (i.e. unlikeable) characters on the pages of a novel. Now it’s much more common. This is one that I would love to reread as well, for the very reasons you’ve mentioned (actually it wouldn’t technically be a reread as I remember having to return my copy to the library before I had properly finished – although the part I did read has lodged in my mind more than many).

    • July 10, 2019 10:13 am

      Ah yes, good point Buried about flawed characters being more rare then. I’m not surprised some of it has lodged. So think about (re)reading it sometime – says she who is SO good at following up such encouragements!

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