Monday, 27 July 2009

The Group


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?


18 comments:

verity said...

What an enthusiastic post Claire. You know I already want to read this, but I shall hold on until Virago re-issue it. I am looking forward to her Memories of a Catholic girlhood which I would never have picked up if it hadn't been for hearing about her from you. Definitely a neglected author.

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks Verity; I was definitely enthused. I love finding great books. I'm interested to hear about her memoir and The Group itself was quite autobiographical (she graduated Vassar the same year as the group and her husband was also named Harald). She's written a number of other books; perhaps Persephone or Virago will publish those.

verity said...

Maybe you should suggest her to Nicola Beaumann??

Paperback Reader said...

An author definitely to keep in mind but I think I'll read the other books before trying that (I remember reading about somebody who suggested some Stella Gibbons books who didn't fare very well). I am bidding on a Penguin (who may very well still have the publishing rights) copy of her debut novel, The Company She Keeps, which according to wiki was a critically acclaimed "succès de scandale, depicting the social milieu of New York intellectuals of the late 1930s with unreserved frankness". Sounds fab!

Rachel said...

This sounds like it would be right up my street. I love reading books set in the 1930s and I adore New York so when this one gets reissued I will be purchasing!

Interesting you should both mention recommending to Nicola Beauman - I am thinking of doing just that with the current book I'm reading, Illyrian Spring, which Virago has most unwisely let go out of print. Maybe I won't now...I don't want to incur the wrath of Persephone!!

Paperback Reader said...

Rachel, if you like reading about the 1930s and New York then this is definitely for you!

You should suggest Ann Bridge to Persephone if you are enjoying it so much. Persephone have been nothing but lovely to me but I wouldn't like to recommend a book that I hadn't yet read in case it's a dud! They'll know which VMCs Virago will be re-issuing again in the future, if they still own the publishing rights, and they have published other Virago titles in the past.

Rachel said...

Thanks Claire, I trust your taste so I am putting this on my to buy list. To buy in the long distant future of course!

Well I think I will, when I have finished it. It's such a lovely book and I think it should be available to a wider audience. I will let you know how I get on!

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks Rachel; I'm touched that you value my opinion. I hope that both you & Verity enjoy it when you do purchase the Virago edition.

I have heard such good things about Illyran Spring and Peking Picnic and must keep an eye out for them both.

farmlanebooks said...

I have never heard of this one, but I will keep an eye out for it, and perhaps order it from the library later in the year. It does sound like something I'd love.

Paperback Reader said...

Your library may have an older edition, Jackie; mine did. Although I imagine you will be too busy with Booker nominees in the short-term!

fleurfisher said...

It's a long time since I read The Group but I remember loving it. I'm afraid though I wasn't as taken by some of her other work that I read subsequently. Most of Mary McCarthy's work is still in print in the USA so I wouldn't expect Persephone to be interested, but then again it shouldn't be too difficult to come by copies.

Paperback Reader said...

Glad to find somebody else who had read and loved it, fleur!

You also made a very good point about Persephone; I didn't think of her other books also being in print in the States. Old Penguin copies are quite cheap so I think those are the way to go if I do read any of her other books (I think I will attempt at least one to see how I find it).

savidgereads said...

I hadnt heard of this one and it sounds fabulous. Your enthusiasm quite carries me away with you! I might have to get a copy of this. Hope Hotel du Lac is going ok?

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks, Simon; it really took me by surprise and the last chapter especially took it from a "really liked" novel to a "loved" one.

Regrettably there has been no progress with Hotel du Lac today as I am preparing for an interview tomorrow and had the Booker longlist to pay attention to! I hope to read more, if not all, of it later on.

Nymeth said...

You love it, Sarah Waters loves it...I need to read this! You introduce me to such amazing sounding books. Have I thanked you lately?

Paperback Reader said...

And vice versa, Ana ;). Thank you.

kimbofo said...

Sounds fantastic, Claire. Perhaps I'll order the new Virago edition.

Paperback Reader said...

Kim, I hope you do! I cannot praise this novel highly enough.