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.