Review of “The Group” by Mary McCarthy
Wow, this book was fantastic! I hardly ever read what people might consider a “beach read,” but I was going to the beach and decided to read something that might be a little closer to one than usual. I actually marked this book “to read” after seeing Betty Draper reading it on Mad Men (season 2) and finding out that it was a bit of a sensation at the time. What would Betty Draper read (WWBDR)? Apparently she has good taste.
From the beginning I kept thinking, “wow, I wish I could write like this.” There are lots of writers I admire who I don’t actually think this about, for one reason or another. But I thought this about Mary McCarthy for two main reasons (other than the simple fact that her sentence construction and rhythm are impeccable): first, she is *hilarious,* brilliantly poking fun at the cluelessness of her characters without ever losing affection for them, and second, she is so adept at moving among the characters, allowing you to see each one from the others’ perspectives. This latter point is itself deftly satirized as the women in the group try, in deference to their Vassar education, to withhold judgment: “their education had impressed upon them the unwisdom of making large judgments from one’s own narrow segment of experience,” she writes early in the novel, and at another time, a young woman questions her husband’s version of a story: “That was the big thing they taught you at Vassar: keep your mind open and always ask for evidence, even from your own side.” You can see how McCarthy’s characters are always consciously resisting their own privileged tendencies to make rash, conservative pronouncements on others; McCarthy seems to be gently poking fun at this rather academic approach to life, and how it creates such anxiety and confusion for her characters. And of course, much of it hits close to home.
This adeptness of McCarthy’s in changing perspectives also yields another satisfaction, which is how she slowly, little by little, makes the story sadder. What once seemed like youthful folly turns pathetic, even tragic. While never losing its acerbic humor, the novel deepens to reveal how most of these young women, who think themselves so liberated, are much more trapped than they ever realize. (And then Norine shows up and everything is hilarious again.)
Like every novel, this one is not for everyone. Some people might find it too light; others might find it dull or dated. But to me, this was a brilliantly hilarious, often moving, and complex portrait of women’s friendships and inner lives.