Friday, January 15, 2010

The Group – Mary McCarthy

This was my second disappointment of the year (only two weeks in and I’m not doing very well so far). As with Barbara Pym’s ‘A Glass of Blessings’ I’m putting some of the disappointment down to over anticipation. Every review I read of this book was enthusiastic, the cover is plastered in enthusiastic blurbs from all and sundry, and Candace Bushnell does a great build up in the introduction. I raced through this book in a day and a half hoping it would live up to its promises but I’m just not getting it.

As an aside checking the introduction again tonight (a week after reading) I find that McCarthy was bought up against a strict Catholic background – I thought reading this was by way of a break from the Catholic attitudes of the two preceding novels I’d got through but seemingly there’s no escape from the church of Rome.

I believe I read somewhere that not only are members of ‘The Group’ based on McCarthy’s own university friends, but that she was hurt and surprised when some of them refused to have anything more to do with her after this book came out. I’m not surprised; one of the things that I couldn’t get away from as I read was a feeling that scores were being settled. One of the group - Libby MacAusland sounds particularly vile, and particularly real. I’m sure we all know and dislike a Libby, but even when she’s almost raped she isn’t granted a moment of sympathy. I don’t believe I’ve ever disliked anyone as much as McCarthy dislikes Libby. Another character who comes in for a fairly rough ride is Kay. The book begins and ends with her – right at the beginning she’s described as “a cruel, ruthless, stupid person who was marrying Harald from ambition”. It’s true, but again if Kay is a real person it’s tremendously unkind.

Another sticking point was how tremendously privileged these girls were – one is given a plane as a graduation present, only one of them has to work for a living and she’s the eccentric the ‘find’ of the group. As an honest portrayal of snobbery from the inside it’s certainly an eye opener. What else can I say – the story is broken up into chunks from each girls life, loosely connected by their joint friendships each vignette examines a different girl as she discovers sex, marries, finds a career, has children, suffers disappointments and generally grow up, although for most of them the growing up is cushioned by their fortunate backgrounds. It all felt a bit disjointed with far too many unanswered questions. When the coolest girl in the group returns from Europe a lesbian there’s only acceptance but it doesn’t read right; as if McCarthy simply got bored with the idea and dropped it.

Despite these niggles I enjoyed this book; I wouldn’t have carried on if I hadn’t. Dotty Renfrew stuck on a park bench for 6 hours with newly acquired contraceptives in a bag on her lap (and what a procedure to get the cap in the first place) whilst she waits for her lover to come home and realising she’s been stood up – we can feel for her, as we can for Polly dealing with her father’s poor mental health and trying to build a happy safe single life for herself (she too is allowed to be happy in the end). That it feels real may be part of my problem with the book, but it’s what also makes it compelling; exactly like watching a car crash. I admit I wanted and expected more from this book, but just because it didn’t entirely work for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for you – it’s certainly worth taking a look at.


  1. As a postscript, and further highlighting why I need the internet at home I've spent the last few mins googling Mary McCarthy and feel that I might have to reassess some of my thoughts on this book when i know more about her.

  2. This certainly seems like a controversial book. It's going on my library list!

  3. Oh dear, I'm sorry that it didn't work for you. I did find it very absoribing. Here's hoping that your next book of 2010 will be more fulfilling.

  4. From what I've read about McCarthy I get the impression that she may have based Kay on herself which is making me think back on the book slightly differently. I'm hoping to get hold of 'The Company She Keeps' and then might re read 'The Group'to see what I think second time round. It certainly got under my skin and that's always a good thing.

  5. I am so sorry that this didn't work for you; I absolutely loved it! My book group are reading it later this month (not at my suggestion but completely coincidental) and I'm intrigued what they'll think! It's certainly one that is thought-provoking and prompts discussion.

    As for The Company She Keeps, try ebay. I picked up a Penguin copy after reading The Group last summer although I haven't read it yet.