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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Book Review: The Group by Mary McCarthy

Wow, the 1930s were a lot more risque than I knew! In the first 50 pages, while we have seen one of these friends from Vassar married off just a week after graduation, we have also seen one embark on a strictly sexual relationship and get birth control! Goodness!

The Group follows most of eight college friends in the first seven years after college in their marriages, careers, families, and so forth. As with any group of young women, some are more and less successful in varying aspects of these areas of their lives. None are wildly successful with everything, and it's probably a pretty fair representation of what did happen at the time (it is supposed to be pretty autobiographical.) I particularly liked Dottie and Polly. I felt sorry for Priss who seemed to easily influenced by everyone around her. And I found Libby, though a bit grating, fascinating since she started off as a reader for a publisher and then became a literary agent. In fact the careers were what I found the most interesting in the novel for not only in 1933 was it just taken for granted that all of them would get jobs, but all of them did, aside from two girls who went to graduate school,and another who did have a teaching job lined up but her mother talked her out of it. One did quit once she became pregnant but as she'd lost a few previous pregnancies to miscarriage that's very understandable. But the rest graduated in the middle of the depression, came from money, and yet all embarked on work lives that ranged from retail to a hospital administrator to working for one of Roosevelt's WPA projects. Life in the 1930s wasn't all that different from life today.

However, this book, written in the 1960s, is very different from the writing style of today. Ms. McCarthy's paragraphs often go on for more than a page, even with multiple changes in speakers. She gives us these stories in big chunks, often without going back later to tell us what happened after the window of life we viewed. A couple of the eight in the group get shafted with really no stories of their own at all. And a family butler gets a good sized narrative for no good reason. The book dripped with details which on the one hand did help place it in its era, but on the other hand sometimes I didn't know what they were going on about (especially when it was an obscure fabric or article of clothing not in use anymore.) It took the first 50 pages or so to get used to the style. After that, I did find it a fast read, although I wished very much that I knew more of what happened later to some of the girls covered early on, that sort of thing. Today she certainly would have been advised against treating the eight so unequally in the narrative. But that is part of what makes it such an interesting look into what was popular in the 1960s.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was a great discussion for my book club. If you're interested in Peyton Place but found it a little to prurient and the writing style too commercial, this is the perfect book for you. It's more literary and less shocking for shock's sake, but very eye-opening about a previous generation.

I asked for a copy of this book from the publisher, not for a review, after seeing it on Mad Men.

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