The Group by Mary McCarthy is one of those book I had always heard about but never read. Originally published in 1963, it was alternatively praised as a frank piece of early feminist literature and derided as sexually explicit filth. It is also said to be the inspiration for Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City. Hmmm, sounds interesting.
The story focuses on eight Vassar graduates in New York in the 1930’s. It chronicles their struggles and triumphs as they leave the comforting and sequestered upper class world of their youth and break out into the world for themselves during the years of the Great Depression.
More than anything else, The Group provides a insightful look into the lives of women during those turbulent years. Each character encounters her own obstacles whether it be obtaining contraception for the first time or work place harassment. Unfortunately, many of these issues are still struggled with by women today.
Although the style of writing is very contemporary, some of the issues are dealt with in such an instructional manner that The Group can almost be considered a how-to guide. This was particularly true of the episode in which Dottie looses her virginity. It was laid out in a way that could have been subtitled Things Your Mother Never Told You. It is likely because of this, the premarital sex and the drawn out descriptions of birth control that The Group garnered itself a bit of a reputation when it first came out.
I must admit that I did not finish the novel. As much as I enjoyed it in the beginning, the more I read the more tedious and tiresome I found the book to be. I did not feel invested in what was going on in the lives of the charact
ers and that is important to me. There was nothing to make me want to keep turning the pages.
Who would like this book? This book would be of interest to those who enjoy (women’s) social history. In spite of the fact that I put it down, I was fascinated by the conflicting politics of the group, which very much reflected an end to the gilded age for the affluent. I also enjoyed the perspectives on what constituted a fulfilling life for women in the 1930’s. And of course there is humor to be found in some of the views such as the conveniences of modern living which included casseroles made from cans of Campbell’s soup and the new super crispy Iceberg lettuce. I would wholeheartedly recommend The Group to book clubs. It definitely provides fine fodder for discussion in how much times have (and haven’t) changed. In fact, it may be a nice companion piece to The Astronaut Wives Club, although it is set in a different period.