The Group by Mary McCarthy

What a fantastic book this is. Ignore the somewhat chick lit cover and the reference to a preface by none other than Sex and the City creator Candace Bushnell, and proceed straight to the action, because what is found there is superb, eye opening, and an excellent account of the lifestyles and choices available to educated women in the 1930′s. I was riveted from page one, and so packed with insight is this novel that I could not bear to put it down. Preconceptions I had had about this era about the lives of women; about the things they would surely have been ignorant of, of the choices they did and didn’t have, of their sexual freedoms, of their relationships and working lives, were all shattered in an instant. These were the women Betty Friedan was writing about in The Feminine Mystique; intelligent, well educated, politically and culturally engaged, ambitious, passionate; struggling to reconcile their desires for independence with the expectations of husbands and parents and children, realising too late that their education had prepared them, largely, for nothing more exceptional than a life that would, by and large, revolve around the mundane activities of running a home.

‘The Group’ are six girls from largely well to do backgrounds, who met as students at upmarket Vassar College. As the book opens, they have just graduated and are set for exciting futures. Well educated, attractive and ambitious, they appear to have the world at their feet. They are independent, but are not  against marriage and motherhood. In fact, Kay, one of the most ambitious of the girls, is the first to marry, straight upon graduation, to a man she idolizes. After graduation all of the girls move to New York, apart from Lakey, the glamorous, wealthy leader of the Group, who flees to Europe.  In New York, the girls are wonderfully ordinary; they have jobs and little apartments, they have casual sex and worry about contraception, they go on dates, they meet each other for lunch and dinner and walks, they worry about having the right clothes and when they’ll have time to get to the supermarket, and they struggle with budgeting and competitiveness and inferiority.

As they get older and start to marry off and have babies, they have to deal with the erosion of their selfhood, the expectations of their husbands, the demands of their children, the demands of their friends, and the demands of their own ambitions. Priss, the first to have a baby, is bullied by her husband into breastfeeding her baby, and bullied by her mother to bottle feed; she is always in agonies over whether she is doing the right thing, is completely subordinate to her husband, and she worries that she has lost herself in creating another human being. Kay’s husband is serially unfaithful and her marriage is a sham, but she is unable to imagine herself outside of a relationship that she has allowed to define her, and apart from a husband whose ambition she has allowed to become her own. The girls who choose to remain single must navigate often disappointing and heartbreaking relationships, shattering their mother’s romantic tales of courtship and chastity. Throughout their twenties, the girls of The Group, who all started from such similar points, are all navigating very different paths for themselves. Some will be more successful than others and some will find more fulfillment than others, but all will ultimately discover that life is not the oyster they had been led to imagine, and that the compromises, struggles and difficulties of being a woman in a man’s world are nigh impossible to conquer, even with a degree from Vassar in your front pocket.

What struck me most strongly about this book is that the girls’ lives felt so current. I could hardly believe that they were living in a New York eighty years’ previous to my own. Libby, the career girl, works all hours of the night and day to get ahead in publishing; Polly trudges home to her apartment on First Avenue after long days at her unfulfilling job, taking a detour so she can get food for dinner; Dottie has a one night stand and goes to sort out her contraceptive options (this bit is very informative, ladies!); Kay hosts parties in her apartment for a glamorous crowd and argues in the kitchen with her husband; Priss takes her baby for walks in Central Park and is embarrassed by her inability to potty train her son. They have such ordinary, everyday lives, and I recognized much of my own life in theirs. Something they all have in common is a crippling sense of indecision and uncertainty, constantly worrying over whether they are doing the right things, pursuing the right paths, if their lives will ever change, if they will ever have what they dream of. 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.

This book should be required reading for the twentysomething woman, who thinks she is alone in feeling adrift from the moorings of life. While being in your twenties is wonderful in many ways –  the sense of  liberation after having been under the control of parents and teachers for so many years is exhilarating, of course – it is, at the same time, a terribly difficult, confusing and often lonely time, full of disillusionment, disappointment, heartache and struggle. Work isn’t the fantastically fulfilling, exciting environment you think it will be. The job you want requires 10 years’ worth of experience, so in the meantime, you’re making the tea and have to look like you’re enjoying it. The only flat you can afford to rent leaks every time it rains and is surrounded by drug dealers at night. You’re so tired all the time that your major relationship in life becomes the one you have with your television. Your mum still tells you what to do, you still never have any money, and it seems like the life you dreamed of will never happen. At the same time, all of your friends are more successful than you, you’re starting to get wrinkles, and you realize just how much time you spend doing pointless things like washing up, which, if you think about it too much, becomes depressing. Not to mention that throughout all of this anxiety and stress, you still feel 12 inside and totally incapable of handling anything life throws at you. It’s enough to make anyone feel depressed, and it’s fascinating to think that women in the 1930’s felt exactly the same way. Too much choice, too much possibility, can be disabling, and it’s not the modern disease women’s magazines would have you think.

The Group is a remarkable, and timeless, depiction of the woman’s struggle to be everything to everyone, to modify her dreams to suit the needs of husband and children, to compete with other women, to work out who she is, separate from her obligations to others. It isn’t an indictment of the limited opportunities available to women; the girls actually have very full and varied lives, and those who marry and stay at home with children openly choose to. However, the girls do struggle with domestic violence and discrimination, and the way they are expected to submit to their husbands and put up with marital infidelity is eye opening. These sections still feel very current; controlling men and managers unwilling to hire women of child rearing age are sadly very much part of life today, and anyone who believes that women have equality in 2011 is sorely mistaken. Overall, McCarthy demonstrates just how difficult it is to reconcile real life with the dreams and ambitions women have, and how important female solidarity is in helping to weather the storms that hit twentysomethings unequipped to deal with the pressures and blows of adult life.  It is real, searingly honest, and incredibly powerful. I’ll be giving it to all of my friends.

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52 comments

  1. Such a good point Rachel that the modern disease of the 20s not being perhaps all one thought they might be (although I have to say that I feel like I am getting there with the late 20s..) is no new phenomenon. I loved this book – the story, aside of what it has to say about womanhood is absolutely riveting. Can’t wait to read the Mary McCarthy that they’re bringing out in December.

    1. You give me hope, Verity! It is a fantastic book for showing how universal human experience is. I think we so often look back and think of previous generations as having lived in ‘simpler times’, but really, they were just the same as us on the inside.

      A new Mary McCarthy? How exciting! I look forward to it!

      1. I’ve just spotted this research which is completely at odds with my expereince and what you suggest! I feel more happy and fulfilled as my twenties progress; in my early 20s I did not think that I would ever get married and aspired only to owning a flat. I am now 104 days from my wedding, own a 3 bed house, and whilst career wise I don’t do anything spectacular, I enjoy my job and have beautiful surroundings.

        http://uk.health.lifestyle.yahoo.net/happiness-is-u-shaped.htm

      2. That’s very interesting. I suppose happiness is relative – I don’t know what is yet to hit me. I may very well look back at this period as the happiest of my life! I am very happy, anyway – despite all the confusion and stress that comes with being in your early twenties, there are also all the benefits of adventure, travel, lack of much ‘real’ responsibility, endless opportunity ahead and enjoying living in cities and having fun with friends. My life is entirely my own, and that is a big factor in my happiness. If I had to compromise for someone else – ie. a husband and children, then I would be much less happy I think.

        I’m glad you’re finding that you’re entering into a happy and content time of life. I sort of look forward to that but at the same time I enjoy running away from commitment!

  2. This sounds like an absolutely AMAZING book, thank you so much for the review! I’ll admit when I first saw this book sitting on the shelf at the library, and I saw the introduction was written by Candace Bushnell, I figured it would be like Sex and the City Takes a Trip to the Twenties, so I had to pass. Thank you for helping me see just how wrong I was! As a twentysomething myself, I can run through everything you listed almost like a shopping list (no money? check. more successful friends? check. Still feeling twelve inside? double check) so I can’t wait to go get my hands on a book that sounds like it addresses all that and more! Hopefully no one else has snagged it up from the library yet!

    1. Hello Chelsea! It is an absolutely amazing book, and a must read for us confused twentysomethings. I love the idea of Sex and the City makes a trip to the twenties though – I would have definitely picked THAT book up!!

      Hope you can get this from the library, and that it makes you feel totally normal for being a failure at adult life – we all are!! Yes!

  3. I bought this book in Florida, partly because it’s a Virago book and was on your list. Even though I’m an early thirtysomething now, I still feel all that indecision and uncertainty. My sister is thinking of becoming a medical doctor, but because I’ve got a humanities degree instead of one in science well… it’s a bit harder to find a fancy fulfilling uses all my brains well paying job! And it’s so frustrating to know that, when I also know that I’m just as smart as her, in different ways. I suppose it’s good to remember not to buy into the constant social message that it’s possible to have everything, I kind of hate it when books reinforce that message with excessively happy endings (which Sex & the City has always seemed to do, to me at least), instead of reminding us that we are no worse off than anyone else, and a lot better than most.

    1. Indecision and uncertainty are features of every stage of life I think. We have so much choice, so much possibility. Which way to go? I read in Gilead a wonderful quote, which I will muck up totally in re-quoting, but it said something along the lines of there are many ways to live a life, none more valid than the other. We can get so caught up seeking the ‘right’ path, when really, the right path is the one we’re on all along. None is ‘better’ than another. We all experience and learn things of value no matter where our paths may lead us. There are more ways to be fulfilled and add value to the world than being a doctor – you’ll figure it out. Your humanities degree has helped you to be a beautiful writer, and your words have an immense power to spread good in the world.

      Yes, excessively happy endings annoy me too. Life doesn’t come together in these unrealistic ways. I wish more novels ended with Princesses not being rescued, but getting on in life with a smile regardless.

  4. Not to wax philosophical, but as I read this, I thought: And I wonder, were the men all feeling fulfilled with their many, many opportunities and their positions of power? I’m guessing the answer is No. That’s not to say that both men and women shouldn’t have the same opportunities; it’s just to say that I think that, in general, we humans do not have a clue what will actually make us happy.

    1. Do you know, I was thinking the exact same thing. The men in the novel are just as confused and unfulfilled as the women. I should have mentioned that, so thank you for bringing it up. I don’t think The Group is as much as a feminist/gender based novel as the blurb makes it out to be – the problems the girls have aren’t necessarily BECAUSE of their gender – it’s more of a human condition, really, and of course men feel the same way. None of us have a clue, when it comes down to it. That’s why life is so interesting!

    1. Yes he was! I wanted to slap him repeatedly at the end, and shout ‘YOU HAVE NO TALENT!’. What an arrogant, delusional man!

      I’m intrigued by the film. I saw it on amazon but not sure if I want to invest $17 of my hard earned cash into it. I shall see if the library has a copy. I’d be interested to see which of the girls becomes the centre of the film.

  5. Was it Thomas who also reviewed this book and also expressed hesitation at the cover? I share both of your concerns. Seems someone might think of producing a less off-putting cover design for those who would seem to be its natural audience.

    1. Yes, I think so. Virago do seem to be going down the chick lit route with most of their repackaged modern classics and it is frustrating that a feminist publishing house seems to think that they need to make books look entirely lacking in any brain matter in order to make them appeal to women.

  6. I can’t believe they had Candace Bushnell write the introduction! People who pick up The Group based on that are in for a rude awakening.

    I’ve only read a tiny bit of McCarthy (some of her personal essays), but what I’ve read has profoundly impressed me. Her honesty, as you point out, is searing. She does not pull her punches. But still, she’s not without a wry sense of humor, which I appreciate.

    1. Yes exactly! Though I suppose you could also argue that it could surprise people and show them that they can enjoy books outside of their usual genre, by making them mistakenly pick up something more cerebral than their usual choices.

      I’m looking forward to reading more McCarthy. From what I’ve read she had a highly interesting life, and her writing certainly doesn’t hold back, as you say. I can sense a new obsession coming on!

  7. Read any Katherine Mansfield, R?

    She has a lovely touch with feminine based domestica, into which interesting psychological themes are embedded: the real versus the social self, thwarted dreams and worldly constraints, desire and how its never realised.

    You might like this too, although it does get a bit academic-cumbersome:

    http://www.youtube.com/user/YaleCourses#g/c/E33BCD966FF96F23

    1. Oh yes, Bop! I love Katherine Mansfield and have read all of her stories. I became rather obsessed with her at university, actually. Her writing is sublime, as you say.

      I’ll check out that link when I get home from work, thank you!

  8. Read this when it was first published in the 1960s – my, that makes me sound and feel *ancien*! But yes, a wonderful book. What a cracking cover that is!
    Margaret P

    1. Wow! And what was the response then? Not ancient at all!

      Glad you like the cover – I am not 100% on board with it but it certainly is pretty nonetheless!

  9. Wonderful review – of the book and life! I couldn’t wait to see what your review would say, Rachel.

    This reminds me of The Girls from Winnetka and it reminds me of Dream a Little Dream by Elizabeth Berg and it reminds me, well, of so many other books and, as you say, the human condition.

    Here’s what I think about the cover. It is made to sell books. Maybe more will by it this way. I’m not sure. My mother-in-law graduated college in the around 1940. Her first teaching contract was null and void if she married. Still makes me angry. She fooled them all and went on to become a principal.

    1. Oh thank you Penny! Yes, I thought of The Girls from Winnetka too – such a wonderful exploration of women’s lives across the decades and the universalities of our experiences.

      I think you’re right about the cover and I can see why they do it, as obviously they want to expand their readership – but I think it’s a shame that they have to have such misleading covers, and also that they are buying into the myth that women only read chick lit. BUT! They are pretty covers nonetheless. And if one person who wouldn’t otherwise pick this up does on the strength of the cover, and then finds a new genre to enjoy through it, then I will be happy!

      How dreadful – but fantastic that your mother in law flouted the rules and went ahead to achieve professional success regardless! What a role model!

  10. Right! You have convinced me that this a book I must buy The Heiress to read whilst she’s home this summer.

    You hit the nail on the head with your comment about feeling 12 inside. I try my best to look like I know what I’m doing but always think someone will find out that it’s all smoke and mirrors.
    (p.s. – She’s had a yes from Kent!)

  11. Hahaha, it’s funny because this book made me feel so together and so grateful to be living in the twenty-first century. The problems of twenty-somethings are definitely universal, but The Group reminded me that if I’d been born just a few years ago, I’d have had all my same twenty-something problems and I wouldn’t have been able to get birth control or breast-feed my (eventual) baby without being harassed.

    1. Well that is a positive way to look at it! We do definitely have a lot of benefits on the girls in the book, but the fact that they struggled and didn’t know what they were doing with their lives either was kind of reassuring at the same time!

      That breastfeeding bit made me so angry. Poor Priss! I hate it when men tell women what to do when it comes to their bodies – try experiencing it first!

  12. I got this a few weeks ago and am so eager to read it. It’s always surprising how little has changed even though there has been progress in women’s lives.

    1. I hope you enjoy it, Sakura! This book really surprised me actually, as to how things haven’t really changed, no matter how progressive our world has become, inside, we are still largely the same!

  13. I really don’t know what the reaction in the early 1960s was to The Group because, of course, in those dim and distant days when I was a young bride, there wasn’t the internet and the instant reviewing on blogs and websites that we have today. Books became best-sellers (or not) simply by word of mouth. Indeed, it was word of mouth that made Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers such a best-seller, a few decades later. But my reaction, from what I can recall, was that The Group was an avant garde book, rather sexy, when such things as birth control were seldom mentioned in books let alone in public. The cover was then just the orange Penguin, and I do like the new cover although it obviously can’t appeal to everyone.

    1. Thanks Margaret – that’s really interesting. I did wonder about that – before the internet, what did people read and how did they hear about the books they did read? How did a book become a bestseller before the constant surge of social media marketing?!

      I like the ambiguity of the orange Penguin covers. They make it easier to take a risk as you really don’t know what you’re going to get.

  14. I read this when I was very young, and really look forward to re-reading it as a more, ahem, mature woman. Echoing others when I cannot believe the author of the intro to this edition and also wish for a different cover design. Both seem geared toward sales to an unsuspecting audience. Unsuspecting of the depths of this book.

    1. I will be interested to read this again as I progress through my twenties, Frances. I think it will be especially interesting as I become more settled and think about having children.

      It’s a shame that Virago chose to go down the ‘chick lit’ route with this – an introduction setting it in its rightful context as part of the feminist movement would have been far more valuable.

  15. This was a very intriguing review, Rachel. When you are a teenager, you think all of those twenty something people have it all together. From my perspective looking back on time I enjoyed the journey, made many mistakes, but learned from them. Although, sometimes I long for the physical self of my twenties where I was agile and full of energy, I’m glad I’m through living it. I am a very content sixty year old retired teacher. I love my life and wouldn’t exchange it for anything.
    I love your connections to your own life. Enjoy your life and your journey. The struggles become joy when you get to the end. By the way, there is nothing wrong with feeling 12 once in a while. I prefer 8 or 9, but 12 is ok too.

    1. Thank you, Janet. Exactly! I couldn’t wait to be 25 when I was 17 – if only I had known then what I know now!

      I love that you are happy with your life and have many happy memories. I wish for the same when I am in the same stage of life as you. That’s all we can ask for, isn’t it?

      Thank you, I will do my best to! Ha! 12 is my generic ‘feeling useless’ age!

  16. I came to this book because of the movie. About 25 years ago, I caught the movie on the late show (some of us old-timers will remember when television stations showed movies, as opposed to informercials, late at night). At that point, I knew Mary McCarthy for two things: Her autobiography MEMORIES OF A CATHOLIC GIRLHOOD and her famous literaray feud with Lillian Hellman (in which McCarthy famously observed that every word Hellman wrote was a lie, including the “the” and the “and”), but I enjoyed the movie very much and sought out the book. Naturally, the book is a much deeper & richer experience than the movie–but I think you’d enjoy the movie version, despite some anachronisms in fashion and the fact that many New York City buildings built after WWII can be seen in the outdoor shots. As someone pointed out, the movie is quite faithful to the book–in fact, to my mind, Priss’s husband and Harald are both even more awful in the film than they were in the book. And it’s that rare movie (rare for any time) with major roles for a number of women, all of whom get plenty of screen time.

    1. I would really like to watch the movie – yours is the third recommendation! I will look out for it. It’s always enjoyable to watch a film that has proper (ie. not sexualised) roles for women, and I can imagine that the storylines translate well onto the screen.

  17. If I enjoy The Company She Keeps even half as much as I did The Group then I am in for a delightful treat. I look forward to rereading this every decade or so as I feel it will speak to me on different levels each time and become even more of an enriching experience.

    Happiness is relative and subjective. I am at a stage where I am truly happy and find myself walking through Victoria Embankment Gardens in the morning with a smile lighting up my face (and the sunshine beaming down on it), truly thankful for where I am (figuratively and literally); however, I know my happiness is due to circumstance and that it is transitory so I am savouring every moment of that light, free, cosy feeling in my heart.

    1. Oh is that the title of her new book? Can’t wait for that one!

      I am so happy to hear that, Claire! Happiness is indeed relative and subjective and also fleeting – it’s important to find happiness in the everyday rather than waiting for the jigsaw of life to all come together, I think. Glad that it’s such a positive time for you at the moment! :)

  18. I read this years ago–so many now that I can’t remember the story very clearly, but reading your post makes me want to go and pull it off the shelf and read it again. I’ve always wanted to read more of her books–she is very much an intellectual and I admire her and what she accomplished!

    1. I hope you do re-read it, Danielle – I know I will from time to time as I get older!

      I look forward to dabbling in her other books – I hear Virago is republishing another very soon!

  19. Fourth recommendation for the movie, really exquisitely done and fascinating to see Dottie, Polly, Priss, Lakey, etc., come to life. I’m another who read The Group when it first came out in the 1960s, and it has been a perennial, often re-read favorite; I see more ironic humor in it now. Apparently McCarthy wrote thinly disguised versions of some of her college friends, who were none too appreciative! The Group was a best seller in the ’60s, most educated women I knew read it. The way you found such books then, and lived a book life, in New York at any rate, was of course completely centered in that institution that is now going rapidly the way of the dodo – the neighborhood bookshop. There were wonderful ones up and down Broadway and near Columbia and in the Village, and they stocked the Penguins and later Viragos, and you did a huge amount of browsing – only in a physical bookshop, not on Amazon! The great revolution was when online secondhand book buying came available. That was simply stunning. In the old days, if you loved an author and wanted to get all his/her books, you’d have to keep searching used bookshops everywhere you went, often for years! The hunt was fun, but you cannot imagine what a breathtaking luxury it was to suddenly be able to acquire, with the hit of a button, ALL an author’s obscurer works! But I digress. About The Group, yes, it is valuable to know that women who lived so much earlier than even the older ones of us here, shared so many of the same problems and experiences. Often we get misinformed, misinterpreted ideas about a past era, when the truth is that living then was somewhat different than the current conception. In my family, for instance, we had several women lawyers who came to the Bar as early as 1910 and 1935. I, born right after World War II in a New York Jewish family with a scholarly tradition, was brought up thinking from the first that I would have a career; and in my family there were more women who were “in charge” than the other way around! So you can’t make sweeping assumptions that the lot of women was all one way in an era. What has changed in my lifetime, in my own experience, is that the stay-at-home housewife isn’t the standard norm anymore (which didn’t affect me personally since none of the women I knew stayed at home anyway) that abortion became legal (also not something that would impact my life), that people of various races are treated with respect and have opportunities (it’s hard to realize, now, how other races, and people who were “different,” were viewed before), and that middle class people lived much more comfortably in the old days. It now *requires* two full time salaries to make ends meet, many of us will never have the things our parents have, and yet daily living, for all the wonders of the internet, is far more stressful, tense, busy and fraught. Things were slower and quieter then, and you tended to read long books in a leisurely fashion, perhaps grasping them more when there was less incessant stimulation. So it’s difficult to make people of one generation see what it was like to live in another; but The Group provides a window.

    1. Diana, you always have such informative and interesting things to say. Thank you! I love your insights into how life has changed and how we can’t make sweeping generalisations. I think the figure of the woman as housewife has definitely changed – none of my friend’s mothers stayed at home at all, and to have a mother who did stay at home was unusual. All the women in my family are ambitious and hard working and staying at home was never really feted as an option for me either, so we share that upbringing in common.

      I find it so sad that the way we find books and read books has changed so much and that bookshops have become so obsolete. I rarely ‘stumble across’ books anymore – all my knowledge is gleaned from the internet. I love that image of the thrill of the chase – but so frustrating when you were looking for something specific and had to wait years to find it!!

      I think women have benefited from a lot of changes, but from reading The Group, the emotional lives of women have not changed at all, and that is the real clincher of what makes it such a timeless, universal book that women can still relate to today. I am definitely going to try and track down the movie as well, as I would love to see how the book translates onto the screen.

  20. I remember that this was a prize for one of the Virago contests ( which I dint win :( ) . It seemed pretty interesting to me but was apprehensive of trying out because of the chick lit cover..but your review is very compelling

    1. Vipula, the cover is very misleading! I’m sorry you didn’t win a copy, but it’s definitely worth buying – it’s a brilliant novel and very interesting from a feminist point of view!

  21. I read this back in the late 70s and I think my response to it then was much more earnest. Now, having re-read it, I’m much more struck by Mary McCarthy’s dry sense of wit.
    (Did anybody else notice that Don Draper’s Betty – a Bryn Mawr girl – was reading it in Mad Men?)

    1. I think it’s an incredibly witty book, and one that certainly resonates with you in a different way depending on how old you are when you’re reading it. I feel quite earnest about it now but I’ll probably find it different when I come back to it as an older woman!

      I need to start watching Mad Men!

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