Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Company She Keeps - Mary McCarthy

It feels like an age since I've finished a book (I read of others managing to get through 160 + a year with a slight feeling of envy - 60 is doing well for me) but now that work has calmed down, my stress levels have fallen, and I no longer want to crawl into bed the moment I get home it's time to tackle my to be read pile.

I started 'The Company She Keeps' weeks back and was, until yesterday, in two minds about it. I didn't love 'The Group' when Virago reissued it a couple of years ago but liked it enough to pick up 'A Charmed Life' when I saw it second hand which I found a much more satisfying read. 'The Company She Keeps' was McCarthy's first book and feels semi autobiographical, each chapter is a self contained story and all of them have Meg Sargent somewhere in them. Initially she's an unattractive character; shallow, self absorbed, promiscuous, and a snob, but slowly and without McCarthy noticeably making Meg more sympathetic I found myself warming to her. 

I think it's because there are no real excuses for her behaviour that it starts to become acceptable - in the final chapter Meg's seeing a decidedly second rate psycho analyst who assures her that it's all due to a repressive upbringing - she seems unconvinced: it's to easy. I can't quite imagine how this book would have read when it was first published in 1942 but it's fair to say that Meg is a woman we've all met - the difference being that it's no longer normal to marry at 20 and not unusual to have the sort of complicated sex life that Meg engages in  which takes away some of the shock value.

The pay off for me came in the final chapter when Meg/McCarthy takes a good look at what bothers her - a failure to be happily middle class, or a decent socialist, along with the realisation that the accessories of her New York liberal lifestyle all covered in there "own patina of social anxiety" fill her with disgust. McCarthy has also answered a long held question for me, for years I've wondered why so many of the husbands in the  books I read are architects - Meg's second husband is an architect "the perfect compromise candidate, something halfway between a businessman and an artist". In her case it's an admission of failure to be one thing or the other.

My over all impression of McCarthy is that she could be a bitch, when she turns that on other people as she does in 'The Group' I find it mildly repellent, when she takes that same view of herself it's really effective and totally compelling. 


  1. I keep meaning to read McCarthy's The Group, which I picked up a while ago. I'd not heard of The Company She Keeps before - it sounds quite good.

  2. Give her a go, although I'm not convinced that 'The Group' is the best of her books or the best place to start with her. I hope Virago bring more of her work back into print though; I've enjoyed what I've read so far.

  3. Oh dear, have had this waiting since it was published :( Must do better in 2012!