Mary McCarthy The Group (1963).
This was a great read.
My first contact with McCarthy was via Lillian Hellman's Pentimento (a book which contains the famous 'Julia' story made into the 1977 Fonda/Redgrave film). McCarthy was sued for defamation by Hellman after she said in 1979, "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." McCarthy also set the cat among the pigeons by claiming that 'Julia' was not Hellman's own story.
On The Group, McCarthy said, "I am putting real plums into an imaginary cake" (New York Herald Tribune, 5 Jan 1964) - a reference to her own education at Vassar, the exclusive women's college in New York State. McCarthy's cast is a group (the group) of Vassar graduates, the class of '33. She drops in on them at various intervals during the seven years following their graduation. They are a privileged group of women, although some are poorer than others, and some become poorer through their choices or, indeed, lack of.
To cover coherently this span of time and number of characters requires exceptional powers of organisation, and McCarthy pulls it off brilliantly. The complex narrative works due to McCarthy's focus on the character of Kay, the first to be married. We do not necessarily always see Kay herself, but we discover her life's progress through the viewpoints of the other women. Their different perspectives – sympathetic, apathetic, hostile – build up a mosaic image of Kay which, in turn, helps to define her observers.
Chapter by chapter we see how the choices these women make: some go to work in womanly professions, some attempt to carve their own ways, others choose, or have chosen for them, marriage and child-rearing. The 1930s' New York setting - post Depression, pre World War - is perfect, and is no doubt part of the reason for comparisons of The Group to Sex & the City. This book is very much a New York story.
The narrative turns the spotlight on each woman in turn. There is Kay with her doomed marriage to the adulterous gadfly Harald ("Even in bed, he kept his sang-froid; he did the multiplication tables to postpone ejaculating - an old Arab recipe he had learned from an Englishman"):
She said he wanted to marry her, but that was not the way his letters sounded to the group. They were not love letters at all, so far as the group could see, but accounts of personal successes among theatrical celebrities.
The boyish, accomplished Helena ("The compleat girl") for whom others speak:
...she had been watched and described too carefully by too many experts - all indulgent and smiling, like the group... Helena (as her mother said) could play the violin, the piano, the flute, and the trumpet; she had sung alto in the choir. She had been a camp counselor and had a senior lifesaving badge. She played a good game of tennis, golfed, skied, and figure skated; she rode, though she had never jumped or hunted. She had a real chemistry set, a little printing press, a set of tooling leather, a pottery wheel, a library of wild-flower, fern, and bird books, a butterfly collection mounted on pins in glass cases, collections of sea shells, agates, quartz, and carnelians... She could write a severe little essay, imitate birdcalls, ring chimes, and play lacrosse as well as chess, checkers, mah-jongg, parcheesi, anagrams, dominoes, slapjack, pounce, rummy, whist, bridge, and cribbage. She knew most of the hymns in the Episcopal and Presbyterian hymnbooks by heart... she knew Greek and Latin and could translate the worst passages of Krafft-Ebing without a shadow of embarrassment.
The self-serving man-eater Norine, floating on the group's outskirts:
...Norine, like Kay, had grown thin and tense. Her eyes, which were a light golden brown, were habitually narrowed, and her handsome, blowzy face had a plethoric look, as though darkened by clots of thought. She rarely showed her emotions, which appeared to have been burned out by the continual short-circuiting of her attention.
Pokey the heiress who defies convention to become a vet,
...who was sitting sprawled out, across the table, putting ashes into her plate of melting ice cream and soggy cake with the very bad table manners that only the very rich could afford.
The "colorless" Priss marries a domineering paediatrician Sloan who is keen to become a society doctor (and test his ideas on their baby):
On her lips, which were dry, was a new shade of lipstick, by Tussy; her doctor had ordered her to put on lipstick and powder right in the middle of labour; he and Sloan both thought it was important for a maternity patient to keep herself up to the mark.
And then there's Dottie, who loves a poor man but marries a rich man - and whose quest for birth control is one of the funniest scenes in the book - and the unlikeable Libby (a "mauvaise fille") who aspires to the literary intelligentsia and becomes the complete career-girl for lack of other options. My favourite from the group was the kindly Polly ("This capacity for making lackluster friends, especially of her own sex, was Polly's faiblesse) who lets her manic-depressive father move in and is reduced to selling her own blood to support his grand schemes.
Finally, there's the fabulously rich Lakey, present physically only in the first and the last chapters but a hoveringly pristine ("She was ashamed of the curiosity she had felt... To be curious about someone opened you to contamination from them") sort of moral, social and intellectual arbiter for the other women - even after she returns from Europe with her lover the Baroness d'Estienne.
The nicknames are so telling of the social milieu from which these women either come or aspire. This book looks at what women can do and what women do: how far can one redraw the social lines upon which a Vassar woman ("a rich, assured, beautiful bluestocking") has been constructed? What options are open to such women? What will divide the group and their universalizing opinions?
'Anyway,' Norine said, 'your crowd was sterile... But, God, I used to envy you!... Poise. Social savvy. Looks. Success with men. Proms. Football games. Junior Assemblies. We called you the Ivory Tower group. Aloof from the battle.'
The 'theys' and 'theirs' of the group fill the novel:
She had been amazingly altered, they felt, by a course in Animal Behaviour she had taken with old Miss Washburn (who had left her brain in her will to Science) during their junior year.
The Group is quite a tragic tale, but its telling is richly peppered with humour and its tone is perfect:
...she had been delivered 'prepared for burial' (which they supposed must mean eviscerated), wrapped in a sort of shroud... When Ross came into the living room to ask a question - should they put a brassière on...? - they felt sick. It was a hard question to decide too. It seemed against nature, somehow, to bury someone in a brassière..., and yet, as Ross pointed out, the Fortuny gown was clinging.
Many of the minor characters are delicious. Consider Pokey Prothero's family butler Hatton who "was used to being looked up to, like a portrait statue raised on a tall shaft in a London square. With this end in mind, he had perfected an absolute immobility of expression, which was one of his chief points, he knew, as a monument and invariably drawn to the attention of visitors." Another really satisfying minor character is Polly's father who lost his money in the Depression and was locked up in an institution. He no longer participates in games of Monopoly or 'Murder'! On his divorce:
Mr Andrews was sanguine... 'I've given her grounds, the best grounds there are.' Polly was slightly shocked at the notion that her father, at his age, had been committing adultery. But he meant insanity. He was delighted with himself for having had the foresight to be loony and to have the papers to prove it.
The mothers too deserve a mention; both Helena's and Polly's are quite bats:
'Your father and I,' she now said, 'have never been compatible. I was too normal for Henry.' But no one would guess that, seeing her on the farm dressed in overalls with a finger wave in her majestic coiffure.
One could analyse the burdens these women place on their daughters - and one could spend some time on the unsatisfactory men in this book - but I don't want to over-intellectualise what was a hugely enjoyable read from start to finish.