As part of Virago Modern Classics Reading Week hosted by Rachel and Carolyn back in January I won a copy of The Group by Mary McCarthy. Oddly for me, and annoyingly for Rachel, when asked to pick a VMC book from a list of about five titles I felt great ambivalence about what to choose. I either already had copies of some of the prize choices or I couldn’t muster enough interest in the unknown titles to choose one. In the end I forgot to respond to Rachel’s email until she she wrote me and said “Hey dummy, send me your address so I can send you the prize that you were too lazy to pick.” Well, I paraphrase a bit, but I had been rather inconsiderate in not replying to Rachel’s initial email.
Long story short, I am glad that Rachel ended up choosing the book for me. I ended up loving The Group and I don’t think I would ever have picked up this book on my own. The cartoonish colors applied to the cover photo made me think it was some recently published book pandering to readers who wanted to read about pre-WWII girl power. Not that I have any problem with pre-WWII girl power, in fact quite the contrary, I just shy away from books that are trying too hard to embrace a lucrative demographic marketing niche. (Unfortunately I think Virago has been trying too hard with their covers of late. I don’t blame them, they do after all need to sell some books. But I really don’t think that a Barbara Pym or Muriel Spark novel should have a bubble gum and puppy dog cover. Then again, if it means more people will read them I should really just shut my mouth.)
Turns out that Rachel, my VMC benefactor, is reading The Group at this very moment. I can’t wait to see what she thought of it.
The Group follows a collection, some might say a group, of women in 1933 who have all recently graduated from Vassar. Although it has been 16 years since I read The Feminine Mystique, The Group definitely felt like a fictional sister to Friedan’s ground-shifting non-fictional magnum opus. (Both books were published in 1963.) McCarthy’s tale follows the mostly well-off women as they enter the world of work, husbands, and babies and she explores the ties that bind the women together over the years. This is, however, no romanticized view of the women or their friendships with each other. As omniscient author McCarthy deals plainly and openly with sex, sexuality, domestic violence, mental health, and motherhood, in a way that is difficult for most of her characters. Most of them rejoice or suffer in silence as they adjust to adulthood. And I have to say that I now know more about the fitting, care, and use of a Dutch cap than I ever thought possible.
Even if one sets aside McCarthy’s brilliant depiction of the challenges facing educated women in the 1930s, the book remains an expertly drawn tale of the many ways in which friendships evolve from student days to real life and the associated and ever changing landscape of loyalties.