September’s book club looked at The Group, Mary McCarthy’s 1963 bombshell novel about a group of eight women (and one outsider), all graduates of Vassar’s Class of ’33. Forgetting I arrived early, I was terribly worried I’d have to consider The Group on my own, but attendees turned out to be a mix of old hands and newbies, including one first-timer! Irony avoided.
The story starts with a wedding; Kay, the first of The Group to announce her engagement to the class, marries playwright Harald (yes, the Scandinavian spelling matters) in June 1933, one week after commencement. It follows the eight (plus one) through marriages / affairs, working life, birth (control) & breast feeding, mental illness, Trotskyite parents and lesbian aristocracy, ending shortly before the US’s entry into the Second World War. The book was made into a film by Sidney Lumet in 1966, starring Candice Bergen, Larry Hagman and Hal Holbrook; certain dialogue still had to scrubbed.
Our group was struck by two things. First, things are still largely the same – women are confronted with unsuitable suitors that either go back to their wives or turn into crap husbands, getting ahead at work is a bitch (despite your qualifications) and to top it off, you’re breast feeding & potty training your child wrong. Second, things are radially different – you can’t host a cigarette-fuelled cocktail hour in your hospital room anymore!
The consensus seemed to be that both the number of characters (the nine graduates, plus husbands / lovers, parents and a couple of servants), combined with the jumps in action, made the narrative a little hard to follow. It also meant that we heard a lot less from some of the more likeable or interesting characters – a key member of the Group spent most of the novel studying art in Europe – than we might have liked. Some of us found one of McCarthy’s choices quite striking – the outsider exhibited very poor behaviour and her exclusion from The Group made good sense; in most books, you’d expect to find the outsider to be more sympathetic, really. An unconventional choice, made all the more odd by commentary suggesting that McCarthy was regarded as an outsider herself while she was at Vassar– the book’s publication enraged basically everyone she knew – so you would have thought she’d have made a vaguely autobiographic character far less horrible.
Most of us enjoyed Harald’s provenance; this loathsome character was named (spelling & all) after McCarthy’s first (of four!) husbands! If you’re going to get the boot in, get it right in, we say! There were some real laughs, notably Dottie’s diaphragm dilemma – surely no man would ask you go get (fitted by a physician at a Margaret Sanger clinic in order to be prescribed) one without intending to make you his lover – and keep hold of the diaphragm. (It’s presence in his flat warns off other women, and you certainly couldn’t keep it in your flat for your roommate to see.) But when he’s not home to take possession of the kit, she decides he’s a cad and abandons the package under the package under a park bench; she did spare a thought for the dustman, though.
One thing missing for a few of us – we didn’t get a real sense the Group really supported each other – sure they can plan a funeral in a pinch – which left those readers a little morose, as it’s from our groups (particularly the female ones) that we draw so much of our strength. Perhaps this is the real effect of McCarthy having been an outsider during college.
Our group ran out of time before we ran out of things to talk about, but we didn’t get around to who would we cast in the movie re-make! Bet you a fiver they’d still scrub the dialogue.