Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Group by Mary McCarthy

The Group
by Mary McCarthy
first published in 1963
487 pages

In a nutshell:
The Group follows eight new Vassar graduates, friends from the class of 1933, as they make their way in the world.

My thoughts:
First, a big thank you to Claire of Paperback Reader for bringing this book to my attention and convincing me to make an immediate purchase. Outstanding reviews by Nymeth and Kals motivated me to pitch the title to my book club, in hopes that I might get to read it even sooner.

While the characters in the novel are interesting, the glimpse into the lives of young women in the 1930's is even more remarkable.  We are introduced to 'the group', fresh from graduation and ready to take on the world, at the wedding of one of its members.
They were a different breed, they could assure the curate, from the languid buds of the previous decade: there was not one of them who did not propose to work this coming fall, at a volunteer job if need be. (p.11)
The worst fate, they utterly agreed, would be to become like Mother and Dad, stuffy and frightened. Not one of them, if she could help it, was going to marry a broker or a banker or a coldfish corporation lawyer, like so many of mothers generation. 
The Group is a fascinating piece of social history. My grandmother was older than these women, and my mother younger, so I never really heard stories from this decade. Some views expressed by the characters were surprising, while others made me laugh.

On the depression:
Great wealth was a frightful handicap; it insulated you from living.  The depression, whatever else you could say about it, had been a truly wonderful thing for the for the propertied classes; it had waked a lot of them up to the things that  really counted.  There wasn't a family Priss knew that wasn't happier and saner for having to scale down its expenditures; sacrifices had drawn the members together. (page 31)
On love and sex:
My generation is a little different from Mother's. I feel- all of us feel -that love and sex can be two different things. They don't have to be, but they can be.  You mustn't force sex to do the work of love or love to do the work of sex..  (page 53)
On birth control:
The etiquette of contraception...the code of manners rising out of social realities.  No man of honor... would expect a girl to put up the doctor's fee, plus the price of the pessary and the jelly and the douche bag unless he planned to sleep with her long enough for her to recover her investment... A man out for a casual affair found it simpler to buy Trojans by the dozen, even though it decreased his own pleasure; that way, he was not tied to the girl.  The lower classes, for instance, almost never transferred the burden of contraception to the woman; this was a discovery of the middle class.  (page 67-68)
On childbirth:
..her thin ashy hair was set in waves; the student nurse had done it for her that morning. On her lips, which were dry, was a new shade of lipstick, by Tussy; her doctor had ordered her to put on lipstick and powder right in the middle of labor; he and Sloan both thought it was important for a maternity patient to keep herself up to the mark.  (page 286-287)
This hospital..was like an up-to-date factory:  no baby was sent out until he was in good working order, tried and tested and guaranteed to run without friction for at least the first few months... And these new babies who ate and slept regularly, on a schedule, like little clocks... were going to grow up into a new kind of man, who perhaps (it did not do to be too optimistic) would no longer want to make wars and grab property.   (page 308).
There are several plotlines involving each of the characters and, initially, I had trouble keeping them all straight. The novel reaches its conclusion nearly a decade later at another group gathering. It's all too obvious that life has taken it's toll on the idealism and enthusiasm of the women's earlier years.

The Group was one of my favorite books of 2010.

Book club reaction:
Ten of us met on a snowy morning in mid-December.  The hostess's house was decorated for the holidays and we were all in a festive mood. Eight of us had even finished the book.

This was a particularly interesting novel to discuss with the book club. Although the majority of us are around 50, we range in age from 30's to 70. Most had not previously heard of The Group, but our older members remembered the scandal surrounding the book's publication. One member, who was in high school at the time, even covered the book with a brown paper bag so nobody would know what she was reading!

We laughed at the childbirth/hospital scenes, praised advances in birth control, were surprised at the amount of sexual activity (could our mothers or grandmothers really have behaved like this?), and marveled at the progress women in general have made since the 1930's. For many of us, these women are just a generation or two older.  How far we have come!

My rating:

Bottom line:
The Group is much more than a well-written, engaging novel. It is a fascinating piece of social history.


  1. This is such a good read and I can imagine that it would make an excellent book group choice too. Can't wait to read more by Mary MCarthy (Virago have another title coming out later this year)

  2. This has been on my TBR list since I read Nymeth's review last year.

    I LOVE the way you segmented the textual quotes - very effective!

  3. I did add this to my list when you mentioned it previously. Sounds like a great story, especially for baby boomers.

  4. I am so pleased that you loved The Group as much as I did, JoAnn, and that it was such a successful book group discussion. It was my favourite read of '09 and I see me rereading it every 5-10 years as it is such an important text. I am still delighted that I came across this wonderful book.

  5. This has been on my list for a while too, especially as it came so highly recommended from Ana and Clare.

  6. This is such a great review JoAnn and those quotes are reflective of the amazing impact that the book has on its readers! And thanks for linking to my review :) The more the people who read this book, the better IMO.

  7. Claire persuaded me to add this to my wishlist too. I may have to actually buy a copy sometime soon.

  8. Sounds like a great read, about a time I'm not very familiar with. It must be interesting to see how much women's roles ahve changed and stayed the same over the decades.

  9. This sounds beyond amazing. You had me at the quotes section ;)

    All I wish now, is that I had a local book group to discuss it with.

  10. A roaring success by the sounds of things! And lipstick during labour, the very idea. I would have promptly said to the doctor 'you first!'.

  11. It sounds like a wonderful book. I added it to my tbr list a while ago. I'm moving it up the list after your review!

  12. This looks absolutely delightful and I've been scrambling to find time to read this one. I love the cover by the way. And the passages you've selected are quite insightful examples!

  13. I loved your review! I really want to read this but I vowed to attack my to-read shelves for the next three month, plus I'm on a book-buying ban. Well, this is top of the list after the TBR Dare.

  14. I'm one of the very few people who did not love this one when they read it for the first time - it just didn't click with me at all unfortunately. I'm glad you loved it though!

  15. I love how you organised those excerpts. I'm so glad you enjoyed this as much as I did!

  16. I read this book in the sixties and LOVED it! Your review reminded me of everything the book taught us about our social contexts, then and now. I loved the quotes that illustrated perfectly the issues you were highlighting.

    Thanks for sharing!

  17. Fantastic review, JoAnn! I intend on reading The Group this year. I love the quotes you picked out - this is going to be quite the social history! Lipstick while in labour? Oh, the insensitivity of men!

  18. Verity - Have you read anything else by McCarthy? I know I'll be looking for more. So glad to hear Virago will be releasing another title.

    Molly - This just seemed to be a book I needed to let speak for itself... glad you think that worked!

    Diane - I hope you like it as much as I did. It was just fascinating!

    Claire - This is definitely a book I will revisit at some point, too. Having such an age range of members really helped the discussion. Thanks again!

    Vivienne - With both Ana and Claire recommending this, I knew I couldn't go wrong! Hope you like it, too.

    Kals - I'm surprised this book doesn't get more attention. Guess we bloggers will just have to keep doing our part to make it known.

    Jackie - Claire has really been a champion of this book. Hope you come across a copy soon.

    Carolsnotebook - If I'd known more about this time period, maybe the attitudes wouldn't have been as surprising.

  19. Likeglass - Aren't those quotes amazing? Discussing this with a group (especially one with varied ages) made it even more enjoyable.

    Darlene - We had a good laugh about the lipstick line. They were also mixing martinis in the hospital room... can you imagine packing a martini shaker in your bag?

    Linda - It definitely was! Hope you enjoy it as much as my group did.

    Coffee and a Book Chick - It's hard to carve out time for these long books but, if it's any consolation, this one reads very quickly.

    Karenlibrarian - I'm participating in the TBR Dare, too, and am almost afraid to read review posts. Tackle those shelves, but be sure to come back to this one!

    Karen - You are not alone. One member of my book club wasn't wild about it either.

    Nymeth - After you and Claire both loved it, I figured it would be a sure thing for me :-)

    Laurel-Rain Snow - One member of my book club read this in the 60's, too. She pointed out how controversial it was at that time. Such an important book!

    Rachel - We had a lot of fun with that line during our discussion - Lipstick, indeed! I'm almost certain you will love this book.

  20. Sounds like a great bookclub book. Thanks -- I'll keep it in mind.

  21. What a fantastic post and I smiled at some of your thoughts on this book. This is one that I would consider reading for sure!

  22. I first read this in high school in the early 70s and again about a decade later. I am so glad to see that the book still appeals and still acts as a source of conversation.

  23. Kim - This is a great book for discussion! Does your group balk at long books? Mine sometimes does.

    Staci - I think most women would enjoy this... so many timeless topics.

    Beth F - It definitely still appeals! This is one timeless classic.

  24. I know this will be a marvelous read and have had it on my list for sometime. Will have to wait until April (TBR Dare also. *grin*)

    I dare say, I'm going to run out and spend bunches of money when April comes around, lol.

  25. I've been looking forward to your review and you did not disappoint. I love your take on the book and also all the quotes you gave. I read this book decades ago but still remember it well. It's probably time for a reread. I'm so glad you really liked it.

  26. Christina - Oh, that TBR Dare! You could rush out and buy the books now... then not read them until April. How's that for torture?

    Margot - It would be so interesting to see what you think of the book after all these years! We had a great time discussing it... especially the childbirth section!

  27. I just finished this book yesterday and I really enjoyed it! Great review! Check out mine...


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