Book review: The Group

Posted by Bel. The time is 1:49pm here in Wellington, NZ.

As always, I was influenced by the cover and was not hopeful about this book. I had to request it from stack and it was a bit battered, with loopy hand-drawn daisies on the front - a bit 'flower power' and not reminiscent of the educated and privileged 1930s setting I was about to immerse myself in.

The Group opens with a wedding and ends with a funeral, covering a hectic decade in between, seen through a shifting prism of eight lives. The group of young American women have just finished college (Vassar, which doesn't mean much to me, but I've learnt is quite small and exclusive) and are on the cusp of adulthood in its various incarnations.

The book is startlingly modern and easy to read, with a humour that has lasted well. Anyone that has had a group of close female friends will relate to woven relationships, gossip and assignment of roles that goes with the territory. And although I say 'modern' some of the most interesting aspects of the book come from observing the dramatic changes in society that have happened so rapidly.

At the opening of the book, one character (Libby? Dottie? Helena? I forget. I'm a shocker with ensemble casts.) is directed by her lover to seek out contraception. This is a mortifying prospect and she discusses with a friend that they are fortunate it is even legal in their state. The only option is to be fitted with a diaphragm, a complicated and uncomfortable procedure in that day and age - especially thanks to the unfeeling male doctor.

Other issues, such as the occasional nonchalant anti-Semitism, underline how much times have changed.

Although this book is dominated by female narrative, the men in their lives play an important part. One woman marries the wrong man, despite their creative affinities, and has to battle through their disaster zone of a marriage. The parents of another decide to split and her dad moves into her New York apartment with her, becoming liberally politicised and annoying her with what we would call his glaringly obvious 'mid-life crisis'. Another casts aside men altogether, returning from years spent in Europe with a lesbian partner at her side.

Despite their education and privilege, the women in The Group don't come across as haughty or grating as you might expect. The Depression-era setting plays a big part, helping to make the ear and circumstances deeply resonant to today's "current economic climate".

After some googling, I've seen many comparisons made to Sex and The City, but those tarts don't have any of the depth and resilience of these women. The restrictions that kept them dominated and to being literally locked up in one case, were societal, not self-inflicted. Their aspirations are always for self-improvement - and not by way of consumerism.

Here are a couple of covers that popped up on the interwebs. This imagery I like, other than the candy coated colour corrected - but I suppose that goes hand-in-hand when Candace Bushnell has penned an introduction. They've even put her name into pink, in case anyone was still confused at this stage that this might not be a group of WOMEN we were all talking about.

This design I probably prefer - perhaps they could do a reissue with the photo from above with the cute leopard print coat and make my life complete?

The Group by Mary McCarthy. Highly recommended.
First published 1963. Set in New York, 1930s.
#39 from 'The List'

3 thoughts on “Book review: The Group”

  1. PS you do realise that when you're finished The List I'm gonna refine it down to the ones you highly recommend and just read them...