Some books make you feel very grateful for living in the times we do, particularly as a woman – you know, Valley of the Dolls, The Best of Everything, Tess of the D’Urbervilles…
The Group by Mary McCarthy is just one of those books. It was written in the early 60s and is set in the 30s. The vast differences (and a few similarities) between then and now are fascinating, particularly as this is such a realistic novel in which the everyday is rendered important. I suppose, like most of us, I have my own version of ‘the group’ and I thought that the depiction of this dynamic was still spot-on.
The story opens at Kay’s wedding, for which ‘the group’ of university friends meet up after graduation. We then follow their individual lives for the next few years, in a clever and seamless style, until the Second World War.
The very matter-of-fact descriptions were shocking for the time. They also mean that you’ll warm to some characters more than others (and you’re supposed to).
I loved Polly in particular, and really liked Dottie. I thought Elinor Eastlake, or Lakey – the ‘dark beauty’ of the group – was fascinating and could see why they all wanted to be her best friend. Of the men, I rather predictably loved the damaged and unsuitable Dick.
As well as the characters and their stories, which are fascinating, the period details are great – the clothes, the food (Kay is obsessed with making efficient modern recipes for her husband Harald, such as meatloaf) and the rather terrifyingly old-fashioned contraceptives.
I would highly recommend this book as a study into a very specific period of modern history, as well as stories that are much more universal than that. The tone and the subject place it, for me, somewhere in between Valley of the Dolls and The Bell Jar. That’s high praise indeed.