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Mary McCarthy: The Group

This was McCarthy’s breakout book. It had considerable commercial success, not least because an excerpt was published, prior to the main book, about a woman going to a birth control clinic, to get a diaphragm, and the book was subsequently made into a successful film. However, some critics attacked it – for being too anti-men, for being little more than women’s chit-chat, for having too much graphic sex and for being merely the stuff of women’s magazines – while dear Norman Mailer – not a man best known for objective views on women – condemned her for being simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel.. she has failed. The story is about eight Vassar graduates from 1933 to 1940, apparently based on real people. What many critics (Hello, Norman!) failed to see was much of the work was satire or, as Americans would call it, irony (and sadly they don’t understand either).

The women are, of course, upper-middle class and the period of the novel is both a period of considerable social and political upheaval but also a period when a host of new ideas, particularly political ones, were being discussed and our eight women were not immune to these ideas. Like most generations, they felt more sexually liberated than their mothers, and like most generations, felt that they were more politically aware than their parents. The key figure is Kay Strong, as it is her marriage that starts the novel and her funeral, seven years later, that ends it. In the meantime, she is the one that does most to keep the group together. At Vassar, she seemed the smart one and when she marries a budding playwright (apparently based on McCarthy’s first husband, Harald Johnsrud), she seems set. However, it does not work out. He is not a successful playwright and not a nice man and, having put her faith in him, there is not much left when he fails her. Some critics said that the eight women were too much alike. Of course, they are all white, well-off Vassar girls, which means that they conform to a certain standard, but McCarthy has made sure that, within those parameter, they do differ. Their approach to romance may be similar but they do follow different paths – happy marriages, unhappy marriages, affairs (including extramarital) and their paths in life do differ. McCarthy also shows her prejudices, clearly favouring some of the women over the others. And the fact that the book is”anti-men” (poor Norman) is neither here or there. I could do a very long list of misogynistic books that no-one would think to condemn for that crime. The book may now seem somewhat dated, particularly as regards sex, but it is still a fine American novel and one that is still worth reading today.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by Harcourt, Brace & World