The Group by Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy’s The Group is a book I think every college student in the country should read.  But I can’t make such a recommendation in good conscience without a confession and an apology. I have to admit, my mother gave me this book when I was a teenager and I didn’t give it a look.  I didn’t believe, at the time, that a group of girls from another eon would mean anything to me and so I said, “Thanks,” (for never understanding what I really needed, Mom!) and I put the book aside, forever. That was a serious gift and I’m sorry I was so unable to appreciate it at the time.

For my birthday this year my mother, still making her heroic efforts to help me make good reading choices,  gave me a gift certificate to my favorite book store here in Austin, Half Price Books. For a song,  I found a well-loved paperback copy of this stone cold classic. I read it eagerly, in long satisfying chunks. What a jewel. From the first page I was enchanted. Traveling with this group of young women as they take their place in the world makes for a very rich reading experience. This group of girls is refreshingly civic-minded, with a deep sense of duty, responsibility and integrity.

Work is of great importance to these young women. Whether they need the income or not, they begin their working lives as though it is their patriotic duty to step up and make a difference in their chosen field. One of the girls pursues a career in publishing. She reads manuscripts and writes short reviews. She’s ambitious and crafty. How can she get more books from her publisher? How can she forge a real opportunity for herself in the business? Her first job, despite her talent and diligence, ends with a patronizing pat on the head and the advice to get married. She’s chastened, but determined, and in fact finds a much better job almost immediately.

Her love life, cruelly, takes a less fortunate turn. She throws a nice party for her friends, to introduce them to her boyfriend, whom she hopes is on the verge of proposing to her. It’s evening, the guests have gone home and she’s ready for her beau to take her to dinner and pop the question, when she encounters, instead, the horrifying experience of date rape. She had no way of knowing this guy could do such a thing. McCarthy, without being gratuitous in her presentation about these facts of life, doesn’t hold back either in presenting the type of dangerous, treacherous experiences women have endured, throughout time.

In a bone chilling episode,  one of the girls is involuntarily committed by her husband. The man enlists the authorities, and has her locked up without telling her that is what he is doing. There is element of psychological torture and abuse here, as the husband leaves her in this limbo where, under duress and scared to death, she must prove her sanity. But she is already ensnared in the mental hospital bureaucracy and held under lock and key. It’s quite a scene to watch her try to maintain her composure in the midst of her incarceration. She can’t get too upset with the staff at the hospital or they’ll think she really is crazy and she has to show them she’s not. It is a very scary episode.   In a sickening scene the husband returns to the hospital, at his leisure, to sign the papers to let her go.

McCarthy segments this book in these exquisitely rendered chapters that, while interconnected, read almost as short stories. Each chapter focuses on a specific girl and how she navigates a particular passage. It’s a lovely device which illustrates the many facets of a women’s journey through life.  It is almost like listening to an album, with each chapter a different song, with its own deeply resonant chord, its own climax and heartrending conclusion.

It’s a very juicy book. I had to laugh when I started it, because you are not very far into this thing when there is a major sex scene. One of the girls meets someone who instantly seduces her. It’s a thrilling thing for her. Unfortunately, the guy wants to sleep with lots of women and he doesn’t want her to get attached, and naturally she does, leading to some heartbreak and humiliation.  But she gets engaged to someone else soon after. Just as she is about to marry, she breaks down in front of her mother, and admits she’s still hung up on this other guy. The mom actually encourages her to call the wedding off and go be with the guy she is still pining for.  It was a fascinating clash of moral reasoning. Mother and daughter both felt they knew the right course of action. The mother advocated the follow your heart way of life while the daughter, having graduated in the midst of the Great Depression, has a less romantic world view.  It took tremendous courage I thought, to stand up to her mother and to do what she thought was right, giving her loyalty to her soon to be husband, and not some cad on the side, as much as she liked him. If her heart is cleaved, well that’s the price she pays for getting swept up so fast in a casual affair.

Polly’s saga was, for me, the most moving of the whole group. She goes to work as a nurse and gets involved with a man who is divorcing his wife. He has a five-year-old child he goes to see once a week. He’s invited her to come on one of their outings together, but Polly feels it wouldn’t be right to have a relationship with the child until they are married. Over time, she becomes very jealous of the child and the ex-wife. She gets so upset she admits to “mentally slaying” them. When they break up, the girl is crushed, but she goes on stoically. She simply swears off love for all time.

Polly ends up living with her father, who suffers from manic-depression. But she can’t make enough to support them both. She tries to take a loan, but she sees the interest rate and knows there is something immoral about the transaction. She thinks about selling her crafts, to make extra money, but by doing the math she can see it could never really make a significant profit for her. Finally, she resorts to selling her blood. While she’s reclined on the gurney, needle in arm and growing fainter by the minute, one of the doctors she works with walks in. They have a deep, soul baring conversation. She tells him she’s been wounded in love. She confesses the burden of caring for her father. She tells the young doctor she plans never to have children for fear of passing on the “thin blood” of her line. The doctor, smiles, touching the bandage at her arm. He tells her he loves her and wants to marry. He’ll help her to take care of her father, at home. More grateful than dreamy-eyed-in-love, she agrees to marry and they go off to City Hall.  And to her surprise, live happily ever after.

One of the most interesting characters in this book is Norine, who is a Vassar grad like the others, but sits on the periphery of their group. She is a terrific foil. At a party she’s caught in a compromising position with a married friend. Norine tries to explain herself. For one thing, she tells the friend who has walked in on them, that her own husband doesn’t sleep with her. Asked if her conscience wasn’t bothered by sleeping with the married friend, she says that having a mistress is good for a man and that it helps him perform better with his wife.  Ever the anthropologist, Norine tells her friend that in other societies the arrangement is taken for granted.

Eventually, Norine leaves her husband and marries a very rich banker and has a child. Norine takes an approach to parenting that causes the  others to raise their eyebrows yet again. She sleeps beside her baby and uses a primitive hip sling. She advocates feeding on demand. It was remarkable, really, to see the ways that her parenting style had so much in common with the modern craze known as Attachment Parenting. And it was very interesting to see the way that the style clashed with the other mothers’ well informed, “scientifically proven” methods that were supposedly better. McCarthy perfectly captures the way modern, educated parents over-think the mechanics of raising children. For instance, there is an entire chapter devoted to breastfeeding. It makes for very tedious reading, I thought, but it captures the sort of mind-numbing effect that obsessing over feeding and sleep schedules can have. The scene also reflects the way society: husbands, doctors, nurses, mothers, friends all have such an opinion on how this childcare thing should be done. Just the idea that such a personal experience would be turned into a public, even political debate is absurd, and yet it is the reality, then as it is now.

The book ends on a dark note. The U.S. is on the verge of entering WWII. One of the friends has died, possibly of suicide. Not everyone survives their coming of age. But even with its dark shades, The Group is a glowing document of women asserting their finely hewn characters in the world- of work, love, family. The girls will inspire you with their example of living life with great energy, purpose, intelligence, warmth and passion.

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