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The Group, Mary McCarthy, Harcourt, 1963, 368 pp
I don't know how I had never read Mary McCarthy's most famous novel. I have known about it for most of my adult life and always thought I would get to it someday. Well, now I am reading 1963, the year it stayed on the bestseller list for months and months, ending up as the #2 bestselling novel, and someday is here.
The group consists of eight women who formed an exclusive clique at Vassar College, rooming in four double rooms and spending most of their time together being smart and snarky. This is very much a women's book. It opens at the wedding of Kay, just a few weeks after their graduation as part of the Class of 1933. At the wedding, we are introduced to all of them, their backgrounds, their quirks and the tensions between them.
I suppose a reader could see the novel as dated. It was 84 years ago that these women were embarking on adulthood, it was only three and a half years into the Great Depression, it was before WWII.
While Vassar was a prestigious female college not all of the group are privileged though some come from wealthy families. They are all quite conscious of a huge shift in the country, economically, politically, and socially. Each one is figuring out how to take her place in such a world. FDR is an unknown quantity whom most of their parents abhor. Communism and socialism (almost equated in those times) are rearing up as viable political stances. Sexual mores are just beginning to shift. The couple getting married have already been sexually active and living together.
The story follow these women through marriages, adulteries, separations and divorces, through careers and even a death. The Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler, the attack on Pearl Harbor all occur. At the end the United States is about to enter WWII.
As I read, it seemed less and less dated. Mary McCarthy of course was mid her career as a public intellectual while writing this novel just as the so-called sexual revolution was about to erupt. But I thought that even up until today, women continue to face the same issues. Except for one of the eight, who comes out as a lesbian near the end, there is little diversity among the characters besides middle class vs upper class. Yet, we are as much today in the midst of tremendous upheaval economically, politically, and socially, as well as sexually.
So I decided that "dated" is not the correct epithet. Perhaps the novel is historical, but in fact I found it part of the stream of history for American women, a history that is ongoing. Reading it gave me a sense of relief from the particular stress of our times. Every generation faces change and upheaval, from our great grandmothers flowing on to our great granddaughters. Mary McCarthy was a contentious, sometimes bitter and catty woman possessed of fierce intelligence and sensitive feelings. She preceded our fierce female intellectuals of today and some of them even admit her influence on them. I should say so!
(The Group is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)