by Mary McCarthy
first published in 1963
In a nutshell:
The Group follows eight new Vassar graduates, friends from the class of 1933, as they make their way in the world.
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!
The Group is much more than a well-written, engaging novel. It is a fascinating piece of social history.