Review: The Group, Mary McCarthy

I actually read this one a wee while ago but it is pretty interesting and nobody I know had ever heard of it so I wanted to put on here.  It’s odd that this book is so unknown now because it caused scandal when it was first published in 1963, and managed to get itself banned in Australia as an offence to public morals whilst simultaneously being rejected as a trivial ladies’ novel by the radical left.  In an interview before her death, McCarthy claimed that The Group ruined her life and it certainly caused her a great deal of trouble and looking at in through the lens of 1960s America, it’s not hard to see why.  

The book is set in the 1930s and deals with the fortunes of eight Vassar graduates and their careers, marriages, experiences of parenthood undsoweiter while living in New York. It discusses contraception, divorce, adultery and mental illness.  To be totally honest, it’s a bit of a How to Be a Woman of the 1960s, except it’s set thirty years in the past.  The Group has been out of print for a while and got reissued a couple of years back by Virago and can we guess who wrote the foreword for the new edition?  Candace Bushnell!  Quelle surprise … yes, even a summary glance at the premise of the novel would be ringing a few bells and it’s true that when Candace Bushnell was asked to write a 1990s version of The Group, she came up with Sex and the City.  I’ve always said that Sex and the City was only called that to draw in an audience, it was really about what it meant to be a woman with Samantha thrown in for comic relief.  

The cast of The Group film
The Group begins with a wedding, which is kind of funny because it shows that a woman’s story really does not end there with a simple ‘happy ever after’.  Kay marries Harald, the humourless play director with all of her old room-mates in attendance; Libby, Pokey, Priss, Helena, Dottie, Polly and the enigmatic Lakey.  From then on, each chapter deals with a different member of the group as they move on with their lives post-graduation.  As a recent graduate, it interested me the different paths in which their lives took them afteer graduating with the belief that they could change the world.  I always like stories which take in the full breadth of people’s lives and I felt that The Group convincingly portrayed a group of friends as they moved into adulthood, keeping up with each other’s news and taking steps in their own lives.  While not all characters take centre-stage all of the time, they are constantly referenced and the reader never loses track of them
It’s interesting that this was written in the 1960s about the 1930s because really nothing has changed.  Many of the characters have pre-marital sex, there are still the conflicts between career and family, fears surrounding motherhood, the struggle to be respected in the workplace, class consciousness and just terrible relationships.  Some things have changed such as attitudes towards contraception, Dottie endures a humiliating trip to get a Dutch cap and then is stood up by the brutish man to whom she has just lost her virginity.  McCarthy is not shy of being blunt concerning indelicate matters and it is this that really gives the novel its power.  
Criticism of The Group has surrounded the women’s passive role and their lack of control in their own lives and it is true that much of the novel surrounds their reactions to the situations in which they find themselves but this is completely unfair.  The whole point is that these women are dealing with things the best they can with very limited options – as Caitlin Moran points out in How to be a Woman, a woman who chooses to stay at home with her children today can still be a feminist because she is exercising a choice.  The women of The Group had no choice, once they had children their careers were over.  

This book is not without its faults, some of the characters were more likeable than others and I would have liked more detail about what happened in their lives rather than the sudden jumps.  Nevertheless, I absolutely loved the way in which this book provided a sense of continuity in what it means to be a woman – times have changed but we are all still looking for the same things.  
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The Group by Mary McCarthy
Published by Hachette UK on January 13th 2011
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 448
ISBN: 9780748126934

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