Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Sunday Book: The Group - Mary McCarthy

Oh no... I lost my roll. I read The Group weeks ago and was totally intrigued by it but didn't write any notes and now I can't do it justice. To be a better, more observant, more punctual human. I'm going to patch something together though because the novel is bitter and hilarious and fascinating and more than worth posting.


Published in the 1960s and set in the 1930s, the novel traces the post-college years of a group of Vassar students. I read this book based on an online recommendation (can't remember whose, sorry) and it is a perfect demonstration of the importance and validity of online conversations about books read, enjoyed and considered. Occasionally I am struck by the feeling that my book posts are just vapid, narcissistic ramblings, white noise in a sea of white noise, and I should leave literary criticisms to the professionals - paid critics, academics, real writers. But it is unlikely that I would have stumbled across the original reviews (which were largely negative anyway) and few publications are rushing to discuss fifty year old writing by women. Based on the presentation of the current edition and the lack of professional critical conversation I would never have come across or picked up this book and that would have been a shame because it sharp and surprising and great.

I have written before about my disdain for the decisions made in the marketing of books by women and this is a prime example. I would never have picked this book up on it's own because it looks like drivel. The inside and outside of this book (my edition, the current Virago edition, specifically) are completely contradictory! This book should not be presented as chick lit - it shouldn't have a gossipy cover or an introduction by Candace Bushnell or pull quotes from Marian Keyes and Cosmopolitan. I actually have a lot of respect for Keyes and the introduction might be great (I didn't read it because I was too annoyed by the misleading SATC tie in) but they convey a very different kind of book to the one between the covers. Presumably this kind of down-selling makes for good sales but it must also make for a lot of disappointment; those who buy it for some fun, sexy Cosmo adventures are going to be disappointed and those who might actually enjoy it are going to overlook it...

"Married, single, career driven, or just working to pay the bills, the girls all struggle with their own challenges, and none is truly fulfilled in what they do or with what they have. Too intelligent and ambitious to be content with mediocrity, their tragedy is that the world they live in is not equipped to offer them the opportunities they long for, and they realize too late that happiness and fulfillment are not as simple to achieve as they once so naively believed." Rachel @ Book Snob

This isn't a chatty, flirty tale of love and glamour in period New York. This is a brutal examination of the disappointments in store for college educated women in the 1930s. It is engrossed in the gritty reality of these girls' lives, it is a dark, honest look at birth control, unpleasant sex, failing marriages, stumbling careers and shitting babies. There is an almost clinical attention to detail. I was very interested and surprised by how explicit much of it was, not erotic explicit but unflinching, we think we're so much more advanced and open than the 30s/60s but it is a long time since I've read anything so devoid of euphemisms and soft focus.

"It all rang true. She opened a further door into brutal frankness. There was something so crisp and clever and bold about her writing." Claire Tomalin

Oh, and on top of the content, which is remarkable and still feels depressingly relevant, the form of the novel is completely unexpected. This isn't a single linear narrative but a weaving of loosely linked stories. Time skips back and forth and chance encounters, memories and conversations spark each new chapter and connection. There is no heroine, no lead protagonist even, all the girls' lives have roughly equivalent weight although they make very different decisions. You hate them all for their flaws (and your own) and you love them for their moments of charm and honesty. It is beautifully human.

"The Group is easily a masterpiece, a satiric epic depicting in a nuanced, acute prose replete with uncommon wit, a great American tragedy: the unrelenting attack on female ambition. [...] In a brilliantly structured narrative that moves seamlessly forward in time while variously interweaving the lives of these eight women, McCarthy describes in rich and astonishing detail their mundane benchmarks: first love, first rejection, first job, first orgasm, first fight, first diaphragm fitting (which itself has to be a first in literature), first husband, first child, first breast-feeding (best thing I've ever read on the subject), first separation, first divorce, first death. There are no heroines. Each woman is flawed, a product of her particular time and place, striving to be her best, succumbing to her weaknesses with greater regularity. As we follow their overlapping trajectories, we witness each Vassar graduate have -- or deny -- the realization that the only voice she will ever have in the world is confined to denigrated female-identified domesticity. How successful a woman is must ultimately be measured by how content she is to dwell in a world apart. The Group recounts the everyman story of thwarted ambition from the female point of view and it is riveting stuff." Bookslut

If you are interested in reading about women's lives (and why wouldn't you be??) or twentieth century history or simply sharp, funny, truthful observations then I'd recommend checking out The Group. It is a great pleasure to be surprised.

Chuck x

1 comment:

  1. I actually thought this exact thing when I had heard about this book. Glad to hear it's better than the chick-lit type cover they assigned it. I'll add it to the (growing) list

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