I’ve been dealing with my nerve medication these past few weeks and it’s prevented me from suffering fools of any kind. Due to this unfortunate condition, reading “The Group” by Mary McCarthy came to be quite difficult as the book went on. The women who were twits at the beginning of the story failed to make any narrative progress so by the end of the book they had actually regressed and become worse.
Published in 1963 “The Group” was a cultural touchstone to a generation of Baby Boomers, but I’d never read it. When I asked my mother if she’d read it she announced her loathing of the work and refused to speak of it again. It’s safe to say that this book blew my mind and not in a “Holy shit, is that truffle macaroni and cheese?!” kind of way. More like an optical illusion hidden within a word problem.
The eponymous “Group” is made up of eight women, graduates of Vassar class of ‘33; kind of like the Pink Ladies without the street smarts and sex appeal. The book delves into their intertwining lives up until 1940. It was somewhat scandalous in its day due to frank yet clinical talk about premarital sex, birth control, breastfeeding, psychoanalysis, and Communism. Shocking, I know; but like an adolescent learning how to masturbate, all McCarthy wants to do is focus on these topics. Not surprisingly this comes at the detriment of character development.
Let’s meet the girls, shall we? And don’t even ask about the names. Such raw Yankee traditions confuse and upset me.
Kay-The outsider cum bellwether of the group. She was handpicked, invited into the Group by none other than the beautiful, mysterious Lakey, more on her in a bit. Kay is unconventional (a wedding breakfast rather than a formal reception!) and marries an asshole named Harald, spelled precisely that way. He fancies himself a playwright and, just like today he’s actually unemployed. Kay works at Macy’s while Harald goes philandering, most notably with Norine Schmittlapp. In fact, it’s Norine that convinces Harald to have Kay committed because she had the audacity to react poorly to his coming home drunk, announcing his multiple infidelities, breaking a bunch of shit, and then beating her up.
Dottie-The graceful Bostonian who was nice enough to orgasm on her very first try. She falls prey to an “artist”/lothario at Kay and Harald’s wedding and, on a whim, goes home with him. There he drank a lot and shit-talked Dottie’s friends; then they have sex. McCarthy’s description of the seedy flophouse had me feeling the gritty sheets just like I was there. In the morning Dottie is grateful that a man, any man has taken notice of her. She beamed when he told her that she better get a diaphragm if she wants to bone him again, but she was definitely not to start thinking things were gonna get exclusive. Just like the homecoming queen she scampered off to the “lady doctor.” Subsequent chapters taught me more about barrier methods of birth control than I ever knew possible.
Libby-A bubblehead, overly eager to make it in publishing regardless of how little she knows about the business. Her boss, LeRoy (keep him in mind) grudgingly allowed her to read manuscripts on her own time, then he fired her by saying “Publishing’s a man’s business…. Marry a publisher, Miss MacAusland, and be his hostess.” Upon this brutal dismissal, Libby fainted in his arms. In a desperate attempt to make amends he promises that he’ll find her a job as a literary agent. Keep that in mind ladies when you remember your education. Later on, Libby and her artistic salons become the toast of New York. In fact, at one of them, a louche European tried to rape her. He backed off when she told him she was a virgin, but that didn’t stop him from tossing out some slicing remarks on his way out the door.
Priss- The name says it all, doesn’t it? She’s a mousy girl with a stutter. She’s married to a pediatrician, Sloan, who insists she breastfeeds their child even though seemingly everyone in the world is horrified by the idea, including her doctor. Priss shows no interest in anything other than keeping her milk up so as not to disappoint her husband. He showed his support by berating her for supporting FDR and the New Deal. Clearly, the National Recovery Act is to blame for Priss’ dry, feeble breasts. Not even the Civilian Conservation Corps could help her. Since she was unable to nurse her child Sloan blames her solely and unequivocally for the fact that their child isn’t toilet trained by age 2 1/2.
Pokey-She’s fat, sloppy, extremely wealthy, and often really drunk. Early in the book, she attended veterinary school, commuting in the plane her father bought her. It’s not clear what happened to that venture. Later in the book, we learn that she is quite fecund, to the point that other members of the Group are disgusted by her ability to ceaselessly produce children.
Helena-A grubby eunuch with many artistic pursuits.
Polly – A bland nice girl who has an affair with a decent, loving older man, LeRoy, (Libby’s former boss.) Polly’s chapters gave me a glimmer of hope that one of the girls would have a happy story. No dice. LeRoy is married, but it’s much worse than that. He’s in…analysis. Polly is OK with it initially but eventually falls apart because why would he talk to a stranger about his problems rather than talk to her? Obviously, because he’s talking about her. She comes to this realization during her weekly cleansing ritual. So when he showed up and very politely announced that he’s going back to his wife in an effort to become unblocked in his analysis (don’t ask) Polly gives him her loving permission because it’s really for the best, right?
Lakey-Bar none the most interesting character in the book. Why? Because she’s a lesbian, excuse me Lesbian because back then it was a proper designation. Lakey goes to Europe right after graduation only to show up at the end of the book alongside a bulldagger named The Baroness. That is literally all we know of her! She was cruel in college, playing favorites within the Group, namely Kay. Then she jumped on the first steamer out of town and stayed gone for six years. When she comes back, boom, lesbo.
Why couldn’t we spend more time with her and less time with Priss’s sore nipples?
Much is made of the fact that these women went to Vassar. That’s where they met and their continued closeness after graduation allows for lots of indirect nostalgia. What’s missing though is any inkling of how their Vassar education prepared them for life after graduation. They’re all in basically the same societal position as they were before college. Only Lakey had the drive and desire to move on and we’re led to believe that’s because she was gay; a secret so huge and unforgivable that she had to leave the country. Though I will say that it does come across as though, rather than leaving in disgrace, Lakey flees the US for the more Sapphic flavor of Europe. Seeing how her friends’ lives turned out who can blame her?
These women have either an inability or an unwillingness to look at what’s coming up on the horizon. This fact is made even more maddening by the fact that this book spends so much time talking about larger issues like the Soviet pogroms and the Spanish Civil War. The Depression, the NRA, and FDR are all mentioned in passing. Only Polly, whose parents lost their money in the crash, showed any great support for there the New Deal; that is until her husband quashed those foolish notions.
These issues, war, and recovery are only ever treated as small talk, close to gossip, never sparking true concern from anyone. At the end of the book, Kay becomes obsessed with spotting Axis planes. Rather than finding her enthusiasm patriotic everyone treated it as a product of her psychosis. For proof, they need look no further to Kay’s death by defenestration.
It’s difficult to figure out what these women really want beyond their most immediate desires. Kay wanted Harald to come home. Priss wanted quenching lactation. Libby wanted to make it through her own party without being assaulted. There’s little to no discussion of their long-term goals, and past reflection is choked with nostalgia.
In an interview with the Paris Review in the 60s, Mary McCarthy said of her book “The Group” that she intended to show a gradual “loss of faith” in the whole “idea of progress in the feminine sphere.” I can’t help but wonder how much faith she had to begin with.
Erin Lady Byrne (firstname.lastname@example.org) can be found on Twitter @ErinLadyByrne, talking about nectarines and Don Rickles.