Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: The Group by Mary McCarthy

When this was written, it caused a huge scandal. And it's fairly easy to see why even in the very beginning of the book. Mary McCarthy's novel, The Group, proves that for women anyway, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Set in 1933, the novel centers on a group of friends all recently graduated from Vassar. They come together in the beginning to attend the slightly odd, definitely unconventional marriage of one of their number and they will come together again in the end, seven years on for a funeral. The young women are heading in different directions following their graduations and although their lives are somewhat constrained by the time they live in, they do have some options. One will go to Europe. Several will get jobs. One will come into her own sexually with nary a wedding ring in sight. Some have money. Some don't. But they are all educated women embarking on their adult lives with fresh attitudes and expectations, some aligned with the social mores of the times and some in direct opposition.

The chapters focus more on individual women rather than the group as a whole, which makes sense as they are all dispersing into their post-collegiate lives but that structure makes it a little difficult to see them as a group and to weigh their interactions with each other to see how they differ from when they were all living together at school. In a way it seems as if this is more a collection of character sketches rather than a novel with any discernible plot. As a historical novel, written about the 1930s and published as short stories in the late 50s and finally as a complete novel in 1963, it is fascinating (and not a little depressing) to see that we are still facing many of the same social issues that these women were eighty some years ago. The book touches on so many things: politics, literature, religion, class, mental illness, parenting styles, opportunities for women, homosexuality, and so on. And it certainly explores the nature of friendship, the shifting relationships between the women in the group and the way that outside forces change those seemingly solid, college-forged relationships. Some of the women appear in the pages often while others, despite their apparent importance to the group as a whole, hardly feature at all. And because the narrative follows one and then another friend in great chunks, it can be difficult to remember which member of the group has experienced which event. As a social history it succeeds, but as an engaging novel, it doesn't do nearly as well. I found it to be a bit meandering and long-winded, boring even.  Unfortunate when the language is clearly so polished and the potential for an engaging novel is so obviously there.

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