There was a point this past summer when basically every queer woman I know was passing a single book back and forth between them. It wasn’t literally the same copy (owing to various frustrations of geography, this would have been next to impossible) but spiritually speaking, it might as well have been: a single book growing increasingly dog-eared, dropped in countless baths and coffee-stained, notes scribbled in the margins in eight, nine, ten different hands. A text from me, dated July 5 2019: Omg are you reading The Group now. An immediate reply: I AM.
Mary McCarthy’s The Group is not, by any means, an underground cult classic. Published in August 1963, it was a monster international success and a New York Times bestseller, shifting almost 300,000 copies by the end of 1964. It was even adapted into a movie (starring Candice Bergen and Jessica Walter, no less) in 1966. The Group tells the story of eight ex-Vassar students as they progress from graduation in 1933 to the brink of war in 1940 – it is a wildly stylish novel replete with stunning visuals: cigarettes, lorgnons, eggs benedict, cocktails mixed with maple syrup, long spills down Lanvin suits. More than that, however, it is intensely smart and funny, cruel and sharp and highly political, arching a keenly sixties eyebrow at the lives of thirties women, covering everything from sex to work to socialism to how to get your cook to try the new way of fixing canned beans (‘You just add catsup and mustard and Worcestershire sauce and sprinkle them with plenty of brown sugar, cover them with bacon and put them in the oven in a Pyrex dish.’)
McCarthy’s contemporary critics, perhaps unsurprisingly, called it her ‘lady-writer’s novel’, implying a sharp decline from the literary worth of her earlier work. Many focused on the frankly clinical detail with which ‘women’s secrets’ were addressed and the book was banned in Australia, Italy and Ireland for its frankness about childbearing, sexuality, and even – gasp – contraception (‘Get yourself a pessary’ mutters the appropriately named Dick at the start of the third chapter, briefly alarming group-member Dottie who assumes he said ‘Peccary’ and thinks he’s asking her to go out and buy a pig). Throughout the book, women confront the prospect of often-unedifying sex with unedifying men – Kay finds herself horribly entangled with self-mythologising gaslighter Harald, while Libby cheerily reconstructs her attempted rape into amusing cocktail-party talk. In perhaps the most unsettling chapter, new mother Priss spends day after torturous day in hospital under the watchful eye of her husband, who has her on a punishing breastfeeding schedule – it is a chapter that, more than any other, reads like its own contained tale, a queasy Victorian ghost story soundtracked by the faraway mournful cries of the newborn Priss isn’t allowed to see. While the other group members weave in and out of one another’s stories, Priss is almost entirely confined to this chapter, cut off by her overbearing husband and by contemporary demands of motherhood.
The men of The Group, with the exception of one so perfect he reads like Arthurian cosplay, are uniformly dreadful, assessed with a cool authorial logic which seems to hint at an obvious alternative. A devastating denouement between Harald and long-absent group member Lakey (‘the Mona Lisa of the smoking room’) captures the heart of this hinted ambivalence – but I imagine it would probably be best if you read this for yourself.
In an essay for Lithub, Mikaella Clements notes that even despite the novel’s enduring fame, reading The Group feels like ‘discovering a thrilling secret’. It’s certainly true that there’s something peculiar about reading it, recognising on the one hand its ubiquity, its mammoth success, its girl-powery modern cover, and yet still sensing beneath that a certain further subversion. Written in the nineteen sixties about the nineteen thirties, it is a book which feels at once rooted in the politics of its time and its fictional time, yet is also modern enough in its sensibilities that it could have been published last week. To read it is to feel you’ve discovered something written specifically for you, or for you and the eight or ten queer women whose copy you happen to be sharing.
Image © Dick DeMarsico