13 April 2011

Book Review: The Group by Mary McCarthy

  
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.

21 comments:

  1. I loved the book, too, and it lead me to read a number of other books by Mary McCarthy and at least one biography about her interesting life. There was also a movie made in 1966 by Sidney Lumet, who recently passed away.

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  2. It is an excellent read and I'm pleased that Virago are bringing out another of her titles later this year.

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  3. I read this for book group last year, knowing absolutely nothing about it, but thought it was brilliant. I wasn't that into the first couple of chapters - the whole dutch cap thing was a bit much for me, though definitely worth thinking about all the choices we take for granted now! - but thought it really picked up. What I particularly liked was the way that although different characters 'stood' for different things, they were still real people, and you didn't feel like they were just issues assigned to one-dimensional sketches, the way you do with some books.

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  4. Oh Thomas, you are funny! I didn't mind in the slightest!!

    I'm glad I picked well! I was worried that you wouldn't like it but I am delighted to see that you loved it!

    I am very almost finished. I must say, I never knew I would leave this book being much more aware of my contraception options! And it did read very much like a real life Feminine Mystique. I have been shocked throughout at just how quickly marriages were rushed into and how, despite their intelligence, education and 'modern ways', the girls still suffered so much from being expected to be subordinate to their husbands. I gather that Mary McCarthy didn't have great marriages. I'd love to read more about her after finishing this!

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  5. Don't you just love it when serendipitous events turn out like that?

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  6. I've been seeing this title in various places and I'm glad to read a review of it. So glad that your prize was a good one for you.

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  7. So glad you enjoyed The Group - it was one of my favorites last year. Couldn't agree more about those covers!

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  8. I loved this book as well. Did you know there is a film version starring Candace Bergen? Worth a look....

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  9. Delighted Rachel chose this for you and you enjoyed it. It was my runaway favourite of 2009 (serendipitously pre-reissue by Virago). I especially loved the breastfeeding sections - how opinion has changed; martinis and smoking in the hospital room tickled me in a mildly appalled way. Fantastic socio-historical insight.

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  10. I remember reading The Group as a pre-teen. It was enlightening, to say the list, and an effective study of characters in a particular timeand place. It's on my list of favourite novels. Glad to know you enjoyed it.

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  11. Denise: I just added the film to my Netflix queue.

    Verity: It will be interesting to see what other titles they publish.

    Tea Devotee: Exactly, they all seemed very believable.

    Rachel: It was amazing how contemporary this 47-year old novel felt.

    Darlene: It makes me think I need to be more open to other's suggestions.

    JoAnn: The covers are disappointing. Maybe we should have a design competition.

    Tessa: I am looking forward to see a young Candy Bergen (1966!).

    Claire: The breast feeding stuff was interesting and made me think of a conversation I had recently about the resurgence of the old ways (like cloth diapers) as a way to keep women chained to their motherly duties.

    Margaret: Must have been quite eye opening to read as a pre-teen.

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  12. I bought this a few years ago when I read that it was one of the few titles that Persephone had wanted to publish, but were quoted too high a figure for publishing rights to. Sorry, that sentence is really poorly constructed...

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  13. The colors look a lot like those old photos that used to get painted over professionally, just to add color. A little weird-looking, but fitting.

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  14. Good fun book, nice example of a topical literary bestseller. Also interesting how McCarthy was an important writer in the 40s and 50s, had this huge hit, and then became irrelevant and rather forgotten. Very odd marginalization.

    When I was looking at it recently I was surprised that there was no McCarthy on your uberlist. The Company She Keeps is a phenomenal debut, and she's a great writer and personality. The Group is a good place to start, and she has better books too.

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  15. This book sounds really good, and the cover does look very Sex and the City-ish! I wonder what came first, the cover design or the Introduction author...

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  16. I just picked up a copy of this on a library book sale cart two days ago. It shows up on Erica Jong's list of Top 100 Novels by Women, so I've been keeping an eye out for it.

    Thanks for your review. It makes me want to move this one higher on my TBR list.

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  17. I loved this book, too, when I read it years ago for a book discussion group. I've been meaning to read more McCarthy ever since, but have yet to do so. I completely agree with you about covers. I mean, those who want bubblegum are probably going to be disappointed by a book that gives them a seven-course meal, and those of us starving for a gourmet seven-course meal might walk right by a five-star restaurant if it looks like nothing but a candy store.

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  18. It worked out very well having Rachel choose your winning book. I was glad to read that you ended up enjoying The Group despite your initial misgivings. I'm not a fan of that cover and would prefer an almost completely black & white cover with just a touch of color. Fortunately, it has no impact on the wonderful story. The Group is one of my favorite reads and I hope to have the time to read it again soon.

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  19. Hey Tom, a good choice indeed--did I tell you my mother wrote her Master's thesis about The Group?

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  20. Simon: Interesting tidbit about Persephone. Glad someone paid for the rights to republish.

    Biblio: It does look a bit like hand tinting.

    Zhiv: Yes, this is my very first McCarthy. Definitely makes me want to read more.

    Mother: The introduction is actually pretty good. I don't normally read them, but this time I did.

    Rose City Reader: I found one for free the other day myself. So I am sending it on to Hiberian Homme to keep him company in Italy.

    Emily: This would be a great book to discuss in a group.

    Amy: I have had some very good luck with other bloggers choosing stuff for me.

    Tanya: That would be fascinating to read.

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  21. I picked up a second-hand Penguin copy of this recently, having been looking out for it for a while. I will hopefully get around to this eventually!

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