There was a real buzz around Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’ when Virago reissued it a couple of years ago, and I’ve seen a lot of bloggers enthuse about it in the meantime but when I read it I was underwhelmed. It can’t have been all bad though because I’ve picked up a few other McCarthy’s since and now I’ve got round to reading one of them.
‘A Charmed Life’ is the sort of book that I hoped ‘The Group’ would be; both shocking and thought provoking it made for uncomfortable reading at times. McCarthy seems to be good at lifting up the rock on human emotions and having a good look at all the stuff wriggling around underneath. Written and set in the mid 1950’s (I always seem to feel much better about books which are contemporary with their setting) the action takes place in the New England coastal town of New Leeds which is by way of being an artists’ colony. The summer season is over leaving a hard core of bohemian intellectuals and slightly contemptuous natives.
As the back of my copy states “New Leeds...boasted three village idiots, twenty one town drunkards, and two ex-wives for the average resident. It’s eighteenth-century houses and it’s artistic citizens were run down, warped, and mildewed...” which is most of the problem foe Martha and John Sinnott. Martha was a New Leeds citizen with her first husband until seven years ago when she ran away one night in her nightgown to be with John. Somehow they’ve let themselves be drawn back to the town despite Martha’s conviction that it will lead to disaster.
Her ex-husband Miles still lives nearby with a new wife and child, a man who repels Martha but whom she’s powerless to resist – as the book progresses it transpires that he’s not just unpleasant he’s systematically abusive but this being 1950’s America nobody seems to particularly object to his behaviour (or even notice it) any faults his friends can’t ignore are excused because he’s seen as a gifted intellectual. Nobody believes in Miles as strongly as Miles does with the possible exception of his current wife who really has no choice but to accept him at his own valuation.
The pivots of the New Leeds social scene are the Coe’s – Jane and Warren. He paints, she avoids housework. Jane comes from a moneyed background which along with her husband’s uncritical adoration allows her to live as she chooses. She’s a proper McCarthy monster and I don’t have to imagine her because I’ve met a few like her. Warren in an unlikely way turns out to be the hero of the piece; a miraculously genuine though not faultless man.
It’s through the Coe’s that Martha and Miles meet again which slowly but surely brings about the New Leeds disaster that Martha has been fighting against. Abusive relationships fascinate me in fiction, not the abuse but the relationship. What upsets Martha about meeting Miles and new wife Helena is the evidence that she’s failed. Loving her current husband is no consolation because he’s easy to love. Helena’s relationship with Miles who’s a horrible man is to Martha evidence that Helena is a better more womanly woman. It’s this sort of observation which made this book stand out for me. I’m quietly hopeful that Virago might reprint it, I know another McCarthy – ‘The Company She Keeps’ - is coming out in November, ‘A Charmed Life’ definitely deserves the publicity and the chance of a new audience.