Friday Read: The Group by Mary McCarthy
Some mysterious force led me to read Mary McCarthy’s The Group this week. I didn’t know anything about it, though I’m familiar with its author, and the only time I can remember seeing anyone reading it was on an episode of Gilmore Girls. (Rory reads it while waiting to buy tickets for the Chilton formal in the season one episode, “The Dance.”) But I saw it on the shelf when I was browsing at my local bookstore on Monday, looking for something engrossing to distract me from the awful cold I’ve been battling, and felt like I had to pick it up. This was my method for choosing books until about age 16, looking up and down the shelves of the bookstore or library until I felt a tingle looking at a spine or reading the jacket copy. Since then, I mostly know what I’m looking for when I go to pick up a book. The description on The Group‘s back cover was fairly simple: Basically, a group of eight Vassar graduates take on adulthood in the time between the World Wars. I didn’t know if it would be the consuming read I was looking for, but I took it down from the shelf and carried it with me as I continued to look around. The only other book that I considered buying was Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels, but ultimately decided that it was darker than I was feeling. So, I bought The Group and hoped for the best.
I finished it within roughly 30 hours. It begins as seven members of the group watch the eighth, Kay Strong, get married in St. George’s Church in Stuyvesant Square, just weeks after their Vassar graduation in 1933. They don’t know the man she is marrying, Harald Petersen, and many of them are not even sure that they particularly like Kay. But, they were a group in college and are therefore obligated to be there. This feeling, a sense of obligation to keep up friendships that may not exactly be right for you, was the first of many that I identified with as a young adult. As the book continued – the following chapters, for the most part, focused intimately on one or two of the women – I found that I recognized myself in each woman as she confronted the realms of sex and relationships, career, friendship, and family. (Of course, my white, privileged, East Coast upbringing had a lot to do with my basic identification with these characters, who were all white and privileged and, if they weren’t from the East Coast, very much embraced an East Coast mindset, which was probably much more of a thing in the 1930s than it is now.) In the later chapters, several of the characters become mothers, which is not something I know anything about yet, but I was able to imagine that I would be just as terrified as Priss Hartshorn Crockett – incidentally, one of my favorite character names ever – was of caring for a newborn. During the moments when I wasn’t reading The Group, I kept thinking about how very similar the lives of women – of a certain class – are 80 years later, even though so much “progress” has been made.
The big differences I spotted mostly had to do with attitudes toward sex and careers. If The Group took place today, I don’t think Dottie Renfrew would hastily get engaged to near-stranger out of shame and regret for losing her virginity to a roguish man to whom she develops an attachment. And I don’t think Polly Andrews would have had to settle for a career as a medical technician, where she didn’t have much chance for advancement. In fact, I think all of the women would have a much wider array of career options, though they still might face pressure from their families and romantic partners to pursue certain lines of work. They would certainly still have to deal with sexism in the workplace, though it might not be so obvious today as it was then. One of the characters, Libby MacAusland, is told that she should become a literary agent rather than an editor, because editing is a man’s job. And so she becomes a successful literary agent. If that same scenario were to happen now, it would be more likely that a woman would be told that her character or attitude was not right for the job, and that would be that.
What I loved most about The Group, though, were the character studies and the social history. The women are all easy-to-recognize types, just like the main characters in The Group‘s successor, Sex and the City. But that doesn’t mean that their inner lives aren’t interesting or surprising. And while they grapple with the same problems that women do today, though from a different place in society, their vocabulary and frame of reference for those issues are completely different. I paused often as I was reading to look up literary references, historical events and figures, and even food that was mentioned. That experience alone would have made this an enriching read for me. Luckily, The Group had much more for me to chew on.
I finally finished Dombey and Son and was very happy to find the phrase “dank weed” in the text.
And now I’m just getting into Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, as well as Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic.
What else should I be reading? I’m taking suggestions.