The Group by Mary McCarthy

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This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Mary McCarthy’s The Group. Set in the 1930s, the book follows the lives of eight girls as they enter the real world after graduating from Vassar. Think Mona Lisa Smiles meets Mean Girls but wittier and with more biting social commentary.

It’s fairly easy for us to look back with mild condescension on previous generations as being stuffy and overly conservative. However, McCarthy’s depiction of life for the women in The Group is far from what we might consider prudish. McCarthy deals with birth control, infidelity, homosexuality, sex, and, of course, love in no uncertain terms. Readers are reminded of the decade in which the story unfolds only by way of the characters using graduation years as identifiers (i.e. Vassar ’31), making it easy to forget that the story was not written more recently.

One girl’s sexual awakening, another’s struggle with her tortured artist husband, and yet another’s jaunts around a much more accepting sexual climate in Europe reinforce the cliche that times change, but people don’t. We watch as the girls struggle to maintain the social class perpetuated by their parents, but we also learn that the only girls who are truly happy seem to be the ones with the simplest lives, the ones who have strived more to be themselves instead of concentrating so forcefully on being different from their mothers, which has really made them just the same.

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I don’t mean to suggest that the girls always got along well with one another. College was a tumultuous time for many of them, and cattiness, apparently, is an unavoidable biological (it seems) disposition from which even Vassar girls cannot escape. The struggle for the position of authority as well as membership in the desirable group begins early for the girls, and it never really ceases, although it does become more of an undercurrent than a preoccupation.

I first learned of The Group through the book club at Parnassus Bookstore. It was chosen for last month’s book club read because of its anniversary, and I was immediately intrigued when the hostess talked about having read it for the first time when she was in college. She then, reluctantly, admitted that she wasn’t even sure how she got her hands on it, as it was considered more than a little risqué, even in the ’60s. Call me captivated. I love a good banned book as much as the next girl. I jotted down the title and author and quickly moved on to the next book on my stack, which happened to be 11/22/63 by Stephen King. Coincidentally (or not, if you’re into that kind of thing), Jake, the narrator, also makes reference to The Group (his girlfriend reads it), though no one comments in detail on its content. It will suffice to say that King’s choice of literature for Jake’s girlfriend is deliberate and appropriate. (If you haven’t read 11/22/63, I also highly recommend that book but for completely different reasons.)  So I eventually made my way down to the library and checked out this copy:

They just don't publish books like this one anymore. This well-thumbed copy has belonged to several different libraries and has been "annotated" in crayon on the first few pages.

They just don’t publish books like this one anymore. This well-thumbed copy has belonged to several different libraries and has been “annotated” in crayon on the first few pages.

I was not disappointed.

Coincidentally, Getty Images recently launched this picture collection of women in leadership and professional positions in an effort to inspire us to change the way we think about women in general. If you haven’t had a chance to browse the photo gallery, I suggest that you wander on over to their site and do so. It’s totally worth it. But I think it’s equally important to remember that efforts to change the perception of women and their capabilities have been ongoing, that women have, for decades, been trying to overcome the obstacles placed in their professional and personal paths. I don’t mean to be a gender crusader here, but in honor of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, I think it’s relevant and appropriate to give a nod to those who went seeking change before us.

Have you had a chance to read The Group? What did you think?

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