The Group by Mary McCarthy
Harcourt, 1st edition, 1991
Genre: Roman a clef, literary fiction, satire
Synopsis & Review: A week after Commencement 1933, a group of eight young women freshly graduated from Vassar meet on the occasion of Kay Strong’s wedding to Harald Petersen. The first of their group to be engaged, she is also the first to be married, and The Group will follow their lives from that point. They all come from wealthy backgrounds, but the Great Depression has left many in straightened circumstances. But those circumstances are also the means to allow them greater freedom as they live on their own and pursue various careers, some also becoming wives and mothers.
The narrative devotes chapters to each woman, moving in a vaguely chronological fashion, as flashbacks fill in the backgrounds. Following Kay’s wedding, Dottie finds herself entangled in an affair of the heart with a man who seems to have none. As Harald’s career founders, he and Kay become dependent on her salary, creating resentments. Helena, a young Hepburn-like woman whose family lives on the income of their income, is perhaps the most intelligent of the eight, but does nothing. Mary “Pokey” Prothero is a rich society girl who goes on to study veterinary medicine, flying her own little plane to school, and marrying young. Pretentious Anglophile Libby MacAusland tries getting her foot in the door in publishing, like any of thousands of young women with similar backgrounds. Polly flounders, trying to support herself and her half-mad spendthrift father, after losing her heart to a married man. Gentle, timid Priss, finds herself at odds with her husband, her family, and established medical doctrine when, after several miscarriages, she finally carries a baby to term, only to struggle with breastfeeding and scientific child-rearing practices. And Lakey, though prominent in the girls’ memories of Vassar, goes abroad to study art immediately after Kay’s wedding, not returning until war threatens and one of the Group dies. At the final funeral, the various triumphs and compromises that measure the lives of the Group are eclipsed by death and war.
Reading The Group is like attending a long cocktail party. As you read each chapter, another party guest comes up and initiates a conversation with you, all frivolity and gossip on the surface, masking the depths of feeling beneath. Everyone’s talking about everyone else, and by the end, you’ve got a good grasp on everyone in attendance, but in dribs and drabs. If only there were more canapés to go ‘round.
I first encountered The Group in an anthology called Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing: Great Writers on Good Times (a vastly entertaining little compendium; how I wish I still had a copy), which featured an excerpt from The Group, the part where Dottie loses her virginity to Jim. It was redolent of scandal and naughtiness, and though I had no idea what the novel was really about, I knew I wanted to read it. And then, as so often happens, I forgot all about it. I hadn’t thought of The Group in years when Jenny read it (her review is excellent; check it out), but I went right to the MCL website and ordered up a copy for myself. It became one of my Awesome Books to Read Right Before Getting Married triumvirate (which also includes Revolutionary Road and Little Children), but I managed to restrain myself from reading it till after the honeymoon.
I should hope that The Group is on Womens’ Studies reading lists along with the likes of The Feminine Mystique and Nickel and Dimed. Its portrayal of the lives of educated women in the Thirties is invaluable, and it captures that turbulent, exciting decade in those women’s lives. McCarthy’s women touch on analysis, the new science of home economics, WPA programs, Communism, Socialism, Trotskyism—all of the many popular –isms. Of course, the novel and its characters come from a place of privilege: white, educated, upper-class women, so it is not a universal depiction. But despite their advantages, ambitions, and good intentions, the Group slowly and insidiously becomes more domesticated, and their autonomy soon becomes subsumed into that of their husbands or family or society. So many of the struggles remain current: How are Kay and Harald to cope with her being the breadwinner? Is Helena to be derided for choosing a life of singledom, or admired for it? Is Priss an unfit mother is she cannot breastfeed? (You’ll find any number of women lamenting their own problems in this vein all over the Internets.) And so on.
The characters are engaging, and though they sometimes blend together, they all represent facets of experience. Oh, but Libby is a contemptible little beast, a shallow and selfish social climber. I couldn’t stand her; even Norine was better–at least she was interesting. They’re not always the most sympathetic, and you may sometimes find yourself railing at them for what they’re doing or thinking. But remember: it’s a different time, one we’re lucky to not be in.
It’s a distressing read because of the many troubles some of the Group go through, and also because it makes one wonder how it is that, when so many things have changed, they are still so much the same? It hurts. Don’t mistake me, however, there’s also a great deal of scathing humor. I am especially fond of Helena’s mother’s grammar bump and offense at misused English, and also Polly’s father’s whispering, “Look at that bribed tool of imperialism” about the Irish police officers.
Cover: It’s okay. I like the photograph (though it looks anachronistic), but I’m hating the giant author name above the title. But it is nice and uncluttered. Much better is that version with the tinted photograph of some thirties ladies before a NYC skyline.
“Your question is at once simple and profound,” he went on, to Dottie. “’What happens to the poor?’” He stared gloomily ahead of him, as if into empty space. “Do they go to Mr. Moses’ big clean white antiseptic beach that Kay finds so inspiring and ‘civic-minded’? No; they don’t, my girls; they lack the price of admission and the car to transport them. Instead, it becomes the perquisite of the oyster Bay set—damnable profiteers and grabbers, with their pretty powdered noses sniffing at the public trough.” Kay saw that he was slipping into the Slough of Despond (they had coined this name for his sudden, Scandinavian fits of bitter depression), but she managed to steer the conversation into safer channels by getting him to talk to Dottie about recipes and cooking, one of his favorite themes, so that they were home and in bed by one-thirty. Herald was very paradoxical; he would whirl around and attack the very things he believed in most. As she sat in the doctor’s waiting room and covertly examined the other patients, she could easily imagine him saying that’s he and Dottie were profiteering” on the birth-control crusade, whose real aim was to limit the families of the poor. Mentally, she began to defend herself. Birth control, she argued, was for those who knew how to use it and value it—the educated classes. Just like those renovated tenements; if poor people were allowed to move into them, they would wreck them right away, through lack of education.
06 February – 09 February