The first time I came across mention of The Group by Mary McCarthy was on The Guardian's 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read list and I instantly wanted to read it. Its listing described it as:
An affectionate portrayal of eight Vassar-educated girls making their way in Depression-era New York — and a hilarious lampooning of the men who hang around them. The novel remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two years and still strikes a chord. Imagine Sex and the City with a social conscience, with characters saying things like: "But before we were married, we had an understanding that he should read Kafka and Joyce and Toynbee and the cultural anthropologists … so that semantically we can have the same referents".
I was disappointed to find that the book had fallen out of print here in the UK but heartened to discover that Virago are re-issuing the novel later this year. When I watched this great interview with Sarah Waters in May and found out that she was re-reading The Group and thought it "a fantastic book" I sought it out from the library. Now that I have read it I intend to still purchase a copy of the Virago reprint and reread it to unearth more of its gem-like quality. The Group is the type of novel that I would love to write.
I had preconceptions when I began reading it (Sex and the City comparisons will do that and I love Sex and the City) and expected the group to be engaging with one another often, to all be given equal place in the narrative, for it to be wise but light and I was wrong on all counts, except for the wisdom. The Group is densely intelligent and to begin with I found it a little dry and not exactly dated but definitely telling of the 1930s setting (it was first published in 1963); however The Group is a satire and a highly witty one at that. The humour took me a little while to get but the discussions on motherhood had me wiping tears from my eyes. The novel is highly progressive in its open treatment of motherhood, sex, contraception, and marriage and also discusses Socialism and Communism, Lesbianism, race, and mental illness amongst the socio-economic backdrop of 1930s New York with a predominantly affluent and educated cast.
There is so much information given in the novel and I understand why Sarah Waters regards it as one of her favourites with its attention to historical detail and evocation of the time period. I wonder how influential The Group was on her own writing; there is one scene at lunch in the dining room of a mental hospital that greatly reminded me of a scene from Fingersmith.
I loved The Group and its feminist politics. I read Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann (a Virago Modern Classic) last year and loved it despite, and even because of, its "trashiness"; Valley of the Dolls is an iconic and often melodramatic feminist treatise, The Group is also just as seminal and undisputably better written. I adored the ending and the structure- the novel's events (each chapter an individual and important event in one of the girls' lives) framed by the wedding of one of the group Kay to Harald at the opening and the funeral of one of the couple at its close. Not all eight girls are given equal page time and the novel more or less revolves around Kay and Harald and how their marriage impacts on the other girls. The book's events occur between '33 when the group graduate and '40, after World War II has broken out in Europe and before America's involvement. I was disappointed at first that Lakey, who was the most fascinating (to the group) group member and intriguing and compelling character (to the reader), didn't feature and was given her own story but the end of the novel and Lakey's return from Europe (where she spent the majority of the narrative excluding the framing events) more than made up for her literal, but not figurative, absence throughout. It wasn't until the last few chapters that I went from liking and admiring this novel to loving it; it's testimony to how an ending can often make or break a book.
A sample of the satire on motherhood approaches and of the language:
Accidentally she had put her finger on the truth, like accidentally hitting a scab. She was doing 'the most natural thing in the world', suckling her young, and for some peculiar reason it was completely unnatural, strained, and false, like a posed photograph. Everyone in the hospital knew this, her mother knew it, her visitors knew it; that was why they were all talking about her nursing and pretending that it was exciting, when it was not, except as a thing to talk about. In reality, what she had been doing was horrid, and right now, in the nursery, a baby's voice was rising to tell her so- the voice, in fact, that she had been refusing to listen to, though she had heard it for at least a week. It was making a natural request, in this day and age; it was asking for a bottle.
Has anyone else read The Group and loved it as I did? Has anyone seen the 1966 Sidney Lumet adpatation of the book, starring Candice Bergen as Lakey?