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Thursday, 31 May 2012

Book Review: The Group by Mary McCarthy

The Group, published in 1963, tells the story of eight graduates from Vassar College in the 1930s. Although, really, it's 'the group plus one' as there are nine female characters who dominate, one of whom wasn't in 'the group' at college. I had to refer to the book to remember all their names - Kay, Lakey, Pokey, Priss, Libby, Polly, Helena, Dottie and (the addition) Norine.

The novel begins with Kay's wedding to budding playwright, Harald. It's an odd wedding, as 'the group' acknowledges, but that sets the tone for the rest of the book. Kay's marriage starts off as unconventional and is the cornerstone of the novel; the narrative essentially follows the circle caused by Kay's marriage. I won't say anything more than that, in case I ruin the ending. After Kay's wedding we begin to flit around the other characters, first learning about Dottie's sexual relationship with a man she meets at the wedding then dipping into the scandals, jobs and living arrangements of the others. It can occasionally be difficult to keep up with who's who (and, for this, I think it requires a second reading now I've got everyone straight in my head) and the narrator who slips from character to character when it suits was a little off-putting - but I think that's more personal preference than anything else.

What I did enjoy, and what seemed to be the main observation on publication, is the openness of the narrative. Sex, contraception, homosexuality, death, breastfeeding: it's all in there and more besides. It's an honest a book as you could hope for even in the twenty-first century and is refreshing because of it. McCarthy doesn't flinch from talking about the delicate aspects of life but, due to the large cast of characters, the jumping around of the narrative can be frustrating. I was really involved with Priss's troubles about her newborn son then we jumped to Polly's story. While we do come back to Priss later, I was desperate to know what had gone on in the interim! I suppose that's the mark of good fiction, though - if you don't care about the characters when they disappear from the page then the author hasn't been doing their job properly. There were, of course, characters I preferred (Polly, Helena, Lakey) and those I was less enamoured by (Pokey, Dottie). However, what continued to surprise me was how McCarthy unpeeled characters as she went along, explaining previous behaviour and revealing character traits in a sympathetic manner. Early on, Norine explains to Helena about her marriage in a way that almost made her likeable for a few pages. Later, when we see how Norine is getting on with her life, it's with the knowledge of what had happened previously but the audience (or, at least, I) still disliked her. It's difficult to explain how McCarthy makes her reader revel in sympathetic disdain but it happens for several characters.

I liked this book for many reasons: the honesty, the detail and planning that obviously went into every chapter, the auxiliary characters who didn't just fade on the page for a start. As I said, I had issues with the breadth of it and the inevitable diluting this caused, but I can't imagine the book working as well as it did any other way. In the space of seven years we follow these women through some of the most difficult (and enduringly difficult) aspects of life. It might be set in the thirties but it still feels relevant.

It took me until the final pages to realise what I couldn't quite put my finger on about Lakey - and cemented why I liked her without quite knowing why. If you're interested in reading a novel that puts female issues unashamedly at the very heart of it then you certainly couldn't do much better than The Group.

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