After reading Partisans I was trying to figure out an approach for going deeper into Mary McCarthy and some of the other figures in the book. I had read, enjoyed, and been surprised by the quality of the long story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” from “The Company She Keeps,” and now it occurs to me that I should read the other stories in that volume, her first book. So as I headed off on vacation it was a tossup between bringing “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood” or “The Group.” The Group won because it was a paperback and seemed like it would be more fun as a beach read, although Catholic Girlhood is reputed to be a better, more important book.
But if The Group scored a minor victory in making it into the vacation bag, it suffered a setback of sorts because I read it right after reading Revolutionary Road, by which it seems to suffer greatly in comparison, at least at first. I’ll leave that alone for the moment, rather than drag out the contrasting qualities. I brought The Group with me because it was going to be more “fun,” and within that context I found it readable and engaging and I had a good time going through it. It’s actually rather long (487 pp), but it never flags as it examines multiple characters in telling depth. It’s a very good book that is not without its profundities and keen insights, especially with regards to pre-war (WW2) educated women and their discoveries and roles and how they interact with different kinds of men.
One of the things I’m becoming aware of about MCarthy is that her “time” is really the 30s and through the war, which makes sense (she was born in 1912). I like to compare her experience to the way that I feel about the 60s and the 70s (born in 58, turning 50 in November). McCarthy went through the exciting, revolutionary, modern 20s as a kid and adolescent, withough really experiencing the jazz age or any of the adult excitement or excess, but she managed to pick up a profound change in moral values which deepened as she developed into an intellectual. By the time she got to Vassar in 1929 or 30 (or whatever the exact date was–she’s certainly smart enough and seems to have been the type to have gone to college at 15) the stock market had crashed and as she was going to school, alongside a bunch of rich girls in a traumatized economy, the Great Depression was setting in. Maybe her view of the 20’s is what makes Catholic Girlhood so good–this line of thought makes me eager to read it.
So this world of Vassar graduates moving to New York and starting their adult lives in the 30s is the setting for The Group. And just as I am so glad that I read Rev. Road while visualizing its recent TV derivative, rather than the upcoming movie’s “Titanic” reunion, I knew that The Group was some kind of roman a clef and controversially about real people. I did a little research the other day, after reading it, and the “key” was fairly tame, at least at first glance, but the interesting part of it was that the somewhat central, but ultimately rather unfocused character of Kay is based on McCarthy herself. This was a bit of a surprise, although perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Apparently none of the characters are exact replicas of real people, least of all Kay as McCarhty, but the novel fits together and makes a lot more sense if one thinks of Kay as McCarthy’s alter ego. That being said, I’m very glad that I didn’t know this when I was reading the book, and knowing it might take away from the experience of the storytelling. Kay works well as just one of the multiple characters, but her story provides the novel’s bookends with her hasty, unconventional marriage and her ambiguous fall/suicide death at the end. Another novel where the “heroine” dies/kills herself at the end–and this one a direct alter ego. What does that mean? And sometimes it seems like the heroine’s bodies will always just keep piling up. Add Kay and April Wheeler to the list, and put Mireille from Scarlet Song into the madhouse.
Kay’s wedding is a great start for the book, and upon reflection it’s interesting how McCarthy portrays her own first wedding, with its bohemian, vaguely socialist, theater-world edge, from the perspective of her privileged Vassar classmates as a way of introducing “the Group.” And then, while Kay’s marriage dissolves into a farce of self-deception, she takes up the issues and concerns of this group of educated and insulated young women. McCarthy likes to write about female sexuality and discoveries and gamesmanship with men. The first episode concerns the first sexual experience of Dottie, who is the most wholesome and unlikely sex-seeker of the group, and she goes into detail about a telling encounter with a cynical man she meets at the wedding, going into detail about her going to a doctor to get a diaphragm so that she can have a sexual relationship with him. It’s all very well done in complicated ways and at the same time it is also high quality writing of the “bestseller” variety. It has sex, it shows what it was like for a privileged single young woman to get birth control in the 30s, while providing a glimpse at the heroic and difficult work of a pioneering women’s health clinic of sorts, and it portrays unvarnished a jaded man who wants sex but no relationship, and also how it proves impossible for this young woman not to become deeply involved emotionally after her single sexual experience. It’s easy to picture readers from 1963 being gripped by the candour (and sensationalism) of this initial episode, getting hooked on the novel, recommending it to friends and keeping it on the bestseller list for two years. In a somewhat quaint way it gripped me and made me want to keep reading 45 years later, and the rest of the book brings up all kinds of topics and characters that are very meaty grist for the cocktail party discussion mill.
I think part of my point is that it seems like McCarthy is saying to her 1963 audience, you’re starting to do these things and talk about this now? …let me tell you how “the group” and the Vassar girls liked to roll back in the 30s… So as she turned 50 she’s saying, this is a realistic version of what we did. We had some courage and certain freedoms and we were educated, but we were confused and vulnerable and got our knowledge and experience the hard way. So it starts with an ambitious, volatile artistic couple living together and getting married, covers birth control, breast feeding, trying to get a job in publishing and doing story coverage and becoming an agent instead of a writer and editor, having an affair with a sympathetic, recently-separated man whith a child who goes back to his wife, and the list goes on and wraps up with the brilliant, cold, absent beauty returning from Europe as a lesbian. As with “Brooks Brothers suit,” it’s shocking to see the 30’s and the Depression era as so recognizable and similar to today, let alone the publication date of 1963. The discussion of breast feeding and child-rearing that takes place in the park towards the end is something that I could have easily overheard today at lunchtime. From my own perspective, it’s interesting to think about how I clearly wasn’t going to read this book in 1963, when I was five, but this is a book that my parents and their friends and college and grad students would have all been reading and talking about, and it definitely stands out as a table-setting for the cultural revolution that was taking place during the months that it was on the bestseller list. JFK is shot, the Beatles hit, Sound of Music is in the theaters while Mike Nichols starts working on The Graduate, and everybody is reading The Group. This makes it solid and substantial enough in its own peculiar way. Nothing wrong with getting into the zeitgeist and selling books, and there’s a lot to be said for a smart book with real issues, characters and relationships that is read by that big broad audience. Very much looking forward to more McCarthy very soon.