Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Group: Smart Chick Lit

I wasn't sure what to make of Mary McCarthy's The Group when my mom picked it up at a used book store and handed it to me saying, "Here, I think you should get this." I looked at it puzzled for minute, shrugged, and added it to my respectable stack. Why didn't I tell her to get the book herself if she thought it looked good? Because after 30 years and multiple advanced degrees, "I think you should get that" still means, "don't even try paying for that if I'm around." So it sat in my "to read" pile for over a year. At almost 500 pages, I didn't think I could concentrate on a story for that long with so many other distractions in my life right now.

Interestingly, I picked it up just to reread the back - like I do with so many books when making the important decision of what to read next - shortly after my visit to the JFK Presidential Museum. I noticed that the book was about a group of Vassar graduates, the same college Jackie Kennedy graduated from. Intrigued, and struck by the coincidence, I decided to read it. Rarely do I read a book that I enthusiastically recommend just because reading a book is a commitment and people have such different tastes. I was so pleasantly surprised by this book that I just had to write up a review and recommend this book to those of you, who like me, may have never been exposed to it.

The Group is chick lit before chick lit as we know it existed, let alone became the homogenized retelling of the same story and marketed for beach goers and only the most casual readers. It is about eight friends who, after growing up privileged, graduate from Vassar college in 1933 and find themselves in a whole different world, namely New York City at the height of the depression. It was written in 1963, an odd time from my perspective. Not only is this book sort of "old" but it was written itself about an older period. Maybe this is why it escaped my attention, though just a little bit of internet searching revealed Mary McCarthy to be a literary force in the 1960s. If the story line as I'm describing it is failing to grab you, don't feel bad. I wasn't taken in immediately either. But once I started reading it, I was hooked.

The book drifts in and out of the lives of these eight woman, who after graduation all choose different paths that span between immediately marrying, going abroad, and aggressively pursuing careers. And let me just tell you that for the 1930s, I found their lives much more full of intrigue than I had ever expected (e.g. you learn a great deal about 1930s birth control than you could ever hope to). The way life unfolds for each of these girls is fascinating. But what I really loved about this book was that the characters actually had depth and dimension, something you don't find in female-oriented novels these days. While it would have been easy to allow one girl to be the prude, one the ditz, one the slut, one the brainiac and so on, each girl was complex, facing her own set of problems and making decisions that then re-shaped her character as she aged.

One caveat - I'm not sure if you guys out there would like this book very much. It is, after all, about women with female protagonists, and well, male antagonists. There's the roaming husband, the egotistical doctor husband, and the bachelor seducer. I forgive Mary McCarthy for this, because she managed to portray the educated woman as such a complex creature. Plenty of books out there do the same for men.

And lest you think this book is only about women and relationships, there is still the back drop of the depression including life during the implementation of the New Deal. The characters are constantly engaged with each other over the state of a country nursing its wounds after being brought back from the brink of collapse and how the foreign concepts of the New Deal will shape their lives. Sound familiar? It's nearly uncanny, the only difference being that the two sides actually converse and exchange ideas rather than carry out two divergent monologues.

If you are looking for a book with a great story line, told by an interesting literary voice that challenges you while entertains you, I highly recommend this book.


Jackie said...

thanks for the recomendation! I will definately add this to the "to buy" pile which will of course become the "to read" pile!

Jeni said...

I don't recall when, but I know I read this book -I think I also saw the movie too, but again, memory fails me as to when that happened. Anyway, I really liked the book, that much I do remember. Thanks for the reminder about it though and if I ever get back on track with my reading again, I think I'll have to try to find a copy of it and do a re-read.

Hot4Teacha said...

I'm intrigued...may have to look into picking it up at the library.

Natalie said...

I'm curious to see how you like it!

I'm not surprised that you have read this. It seems up your alley and was written while you are alive (not saying you're old, just that it was way before my time). I think you'd find it interesting to read again in the current climate.

Not sure there's enough bodice-busting for you, but it has its moments! As a piece of women's literature though it is quite good.

fermicat said...

I rarely read books that aren't science fiction (because I always have a big backlog of such reading), but if I run out in the near future I will give this one some thought. Once in a while I read something different as a palette cleanser.

gabrielle said...

Read this book many moons ago. I can still remember being enthralled with the complexity of the characters as their lives unfolded. How each one in her own way strained against the social constraints of the time and wound up facing her own flaws. I think it is important that Mary McCarthy is looking back at the 30’s from the vantage point of the 60’s. This allows her to give a satirical twist to the backdrop of the era. It would be interesting to read The Group again and see just how much has changed.

Keep writing your reviews. They are fabulous!

Beth said...

Well, I definitely am always looking for a good read. John Irving's latest comes out soon, then I'll check out this one! Great review!

dr sardonicus said...

I'm reading Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs right now. What can I say?

Dianne said...

I read it years ago and would love to read it again if my to read pile wasn't already threatening to spill over and kill us all ;)