Review: The Group, Mary McCarthy

Verdict: Upsetting.

I’d never heard of The Group before Claire of Paperback Reader posted about it on her blog earlier this year, but I was immediately intrigued by her description of it (and not just because the phrase seminal feminist text is delightfully absurd).  The Group follows a group of eight 1933 Vassar graduates, with each chapter focusing on one of the girls and a major event in her life: Dottie’s first experience of sex, Priss attempting to breast-feed her first son, Libby’s struggles with her career in literature, Polly’s involvement with a married man.  It’s very frank and upfront about these things, and was apparently very shocking when it was first published in 1963.

These are women with Advantages and Education and, in many cases, women who come from money.  They are proud, in the first chapter, to be seeking employment after college rather than depending on their parents or potential husbands.  They are politically aware and consider themselves independent.  Yet still their lives head in the direction of the domestic, and – here’s why it’s scary! – they seem to exercise less and less control over their own lives.

I was annoyed that the characters weren’t acting like grown-ups – but that’s the whole idea.  They are helpless because they are living in a culture that infantilizes women.  I had to stop reading for a while when Priss’s husband is telling her to breast-feed, and the hospital is telling her to give the baby a bottle, and she doesn’t know what to do.  It’s upsetting, I suppose, because she is completely at the mercy of other people, in the hospital after giving birth, and because everyone (the nurses, the doctors, and her husband) treats her like a child, and she duly acts like a child.

Sidebar: Norman Mailer wrote a crabby review of this book when it came out.  He said the characters were boring because they lacked determination and drive (see above re:  whole idea), and he was upset that the men in Mary McCarthy’s books were all jerks; he said, “[Dick is] still another in the endless gallery of Mary McCarthy’s feverish, loud-talking, drunken, neurotic, crippled, and jargon-compensated louts”.  Aw, gosh, Norman Mailer, are you struggling to find relatable, well-developed characters of your own sex in a book by a member of the opposite sex?  I CAN ONLY IMAGINE HOW AWFUL THAT MUST BE FOR YOU.  But don’t worry, the solution is simple: just abandon Mary McCarthy and return to one of your stated favorite books, The Sun Also Rises.  With that one, at least, you need not fear encountering an endless gallery of feverish, loud-talking, drunken, neurotic, crippled lou – wait a second.

Sidebar to the sidebar: I get Norman Mailer and Normal Rockwell confused. I doubt that either of them would appreciate this.

Mary McCarthy is writing a self-aware – and occasionally, I’m afraid, self-conscious; and perhaps just a tiny bit self-righteous – satire about women of a certain class at a certain time in America’s history.  It’s all about characters and moments, so it doesn’t have an overarching plot, but then, it isn’t meant to.  It’s a snapshot.  It’s a hell of a scary snapshot.

Y’all, I bought an adorable black flapper dress on Saturday, and yesterday I wore it, and my little black cloche hat, and some high-heeled black shoes, and told everyone I should have been born in the twenties.  I would just like to go on record as saying, I could not be more glad that I was not born in the twenties.

Truly, I have never ever read a book that made me fonder of my time period than The Group.  I am thankful for so many things: gains in the field of mental health, and ready access to birth control, and the beautiful, wondrous internet that lets me research things privately that I might be nervous to ask about.  We have far to go, but what a long way we have come.  What gains are you thankful for?

Other reviews:

Paperback Reader
Tales from the Reading Room
Verity’s Virago Venture

Did I miss yours?  Let me know!