Monday, 23 January 2012

Book review: The Group by Mary McCarthy

The Group was written by Mary McCarthy and published in 1963. It stayed on the New York Times best seller list for 2 years and has been an inspiration to decades of women writers since. It was a break through book for women's literature. The style, the subject matter and characterisation were entirely new and revolutionary for the depiction of young women and the realities of their lives in a new America.

The story follows 8 women from the months after their graduation from Vasser in 1933 through the tumultuous 1930's up to the start of WWII. These women mostly come from wealthy families, are 'society' and have had one of the best educations the country can offer them but as the novel runs its course they go through the painful process of dealing with real life and all its mes and disappointments. Each makes drastic compromises in love, ambition or situation as they learn how to deal with, for example; men and the issues of virginity, marriage and that most scandalous topic – female contraception. The Group also deals with a women's place in the workforce, her rights and obligations in marriage and as a mother or daughter – heady issues in the changing America of the 1930s and all of them still pertinent today.

At first I found The Group difficult to read. McCarthy devotes one chapter to a woman and an event in her life, making use of intricate description that can be tiresome to read. Chapter one opens with Group member Kay Strong embarking on an ill-reasoned marriage to an unsavoury hopeful producer. As the chapters progress we move forward in months or years and to a new women and the directions she has taken in life. Somewhere around chapter 4 I got hooked and couldn't put the book down.

I think what has made The Group an enduring 'classic' is that these characters deal with problems and questions about life that are all still pertinent to women in the 1960s, 1980s and now. Even the issues of whether to breast feed or bottle feed, to feed a child on time or on demand are still with us, let alone poor Priss Hartshorn, married to a paediatrician who is determined to use the birth of their first child as a example of his new ideas in child-rearing.

The Group was made into a movie in 1966, starring actresses such as Candice Bergen and Jessica Walters, so it must be due to be rediscovered and remade by Hollywood. I predict a lot of spculation of who will get the roles in this classic ensemble piece, lead roles for Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone, Mia Wasikowska a few other 'hot'names and one or two 'up and comings', just to balance out.

The cast of The Group, 1966.

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