The Group by Mary McCarthy
The Group by Mary McCarthy was on one of those lists that I like to go through with a fine tooth comb of books you must read before you die (or something like that).
I asked for it on my Christmas list from my parents and as the years have gone the list has predominately been made up of books. Hailed as the novel that perhaps inspired Sex and the City, I was immediately sold.
Set in 1930s New York, but written in the 1960s, The Group tells the tales of eight graduates as they navigate their way through careers, husbands and figuring out what life really is all about.
There’s Kay, always wanting more than what she has. She has an elaborate wedding to the rather useless and controlling Harold and the couple spend beyond their means to have a life which they feel people can be envious of. Their marriage is rocky from the off and Harold eventually carts her off to a mental hospital. Tragically the novel ends with Kay’s funeral, her death due to a nasty fall.
Priss comes from a wealthy background and marries a paediatrician. She has a baby, Stephen, and decides to breast feed him, an act which brings disgust and bemusement amongst her peers. She frets over whether she is a good mother and some would say that perhaps this could be one of the first novels discussing post natal depression.
Libby is a a hard worker and very ambitious. She wants to work in publishing but in her first job she is used and not valued for the talent she has. A fainting fit when she’s being sacked in fact brings her the job she wants when her boss sees how desperate she is to succeed.
Dottie, I would describe as your typical girl next door. The books tells in rather explicit detail for the time how she loses her virginity to a much older man who she lusts after over the years to come. McCarthy also introduces contraception and Dottie going to the doctor to discuss this.
Helena is the character I liked the least and found myself drifting off during her parts. Again, another character from a wealthy background.
Polly is the quietest of the group and works in a hospital. Avoiding social interactions and gatherings where she can Polly lives alone in a small flat and eventually begins a relationship with a doctor who is going through a divorce. His wife stipulates that he must go to therapy on a regular basis which does not sit well with Polly. Eventually the relationship breaks up as Polly realises that he will never truly be hers due to his previous life which includes a child. Polly’s father then comes to stay with her, who has serious mental health problems, and spends far beyond their means.
Norine’s husband can’t get it up and as a result the rather frustrated Norine has a long standing affair with Harold, Kay’s husband. The most deceiving of all Norine acts as Kay’s best friend and even persuades her to think that she does have a mental health problems committing her to a hospital.
And there is Lakes, a larger than life lady who has travelled across Europe and finds love with a woman.
Each women introduces concepts which at the time the book was written would have been taboo. McCarthy openly discusses women’s issues and you can see how this influenced many forms of work over the years. A book way ahead of it’s time it’s a pioneering book championing women’s rights in the first waves of feminism. Whilst there isn’t a huge plot, it’s incredibly relatable to all young women, even now, as they navigate their way in a male dominated society.