Written in the 50s, published in the 60s, and set in the 30’s, The Group is one of those books that should become a right of reading passage for every woman, and men if they so please. Way ahead of its time, it remains even more pertinent in today’s world where women are still fighting for a place at the table, whether or not we are leaning in or being bossy.
The Group explores life post Vassar for a group of eight women, class of 1933, as they deal with issues of sex, marriage, friendship, abuse, sexism etc in the Great Depression. We meet them at the rather controversial and unconventional wedding of Kay to Harald- no parents were present and there was no honeymoon afterwards. This sets a tone in theme- the women were determined not to repeat the lives of their mothers. The marriage is not without its many problems, from joblessness to domestic violence to mental illness. Thematically rich, McCarthy uses her characters to great acclaim. Dottie is excited for the possibilities ahead in her life after Vassar but still craves the security of the old world she is about to leave behind, especially after her crass experience with Dick Brown. Libby is ambitious and intelligent but is made to feel less than by her sexist boss Gus LeRoy. Then there is Lakey, and her sexual orientation that does not sit too well with the group. Unpleasant Norine, was a character I found rather interesting because- she has an affair with Harald, Kay’s husband, is married to Putnam who is impotent but she later divorces him to marry Freddy Rogers, a wealthy banker. Unlike other characters, she is not beholden to tradition and sees no big deal in going against the grain. She also takes an open and honest viewpoint about her education at Vassar, loathsome of it actually because it made it tough for her to accept her role as a dutiful wife to her husband. A thing that was at the subconscious of every character, I would imagine. Vassar gave them ideas but it may not have equipped them for the real world.
Most of men portrayed in the story have absolutely no redeeming qualities and the classist society these women belong to does not get away without a skewering. It is to McCarthy’s credit that she is able to poke fun of and expose their prejudices without appearing to make light of it.
The Group sears through topics that could only be talked about around the kitchen table at the time- sex, birth control, breast feeding, unhappy marriage, etc. nothing is off limits and McCarthy is unapologetic in her writing. It caused quite a stir when it was published because it was deemed too provocative. It was banned in Australia for offending public morals, was dismissed by some critics as being another book on female palavers- Norman Mailer did not like it at all, he wrote a long, rambling, scathing review of it, referring to it as a “Lady Book”. You can read it here. Even McCarthy blamed the book for ruining her life because of the scale of the furore it caused. Decades later, we are still embroiled in the struggles depicted in this book. I wonder, if McCarthy were alive today, would she still feel the same?
Although the characters are not widely diverse in the sense that the story is not about the struggles that faced a cross section of women- if McCarthy were to explore that I wonder if it would’ve been a different book all together- their struggles, though real, are not born of hard knock lives either. Still, it finds commonality with women in today’s society and what McCarthy does so well, with the rawness of her writing, is to inform us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.