Friday, October 19, 2007

The Ultimate Vassar-Girl Novel

Getting in touch with my Vassar roots and the 1930s setting of my new play, and countering Terry Teachout's recent statement that "no one without tenure now reads Mary McCarthy's novels," I just finished her most famous work, The Group. While researching my play on Hallie Flanagan, I discovered an interview where McCarthy talks about her disdain for Hallie's students: "They always had paint in their hair. They wore blue jeans when others didn't. They had a kind of mindless enthusiasm. I describe one of them in The Group, as 'Kay.' Hallie was a cult figure, but I don't think that was her fault." So I added The Group to my reading list--and was excited to see Hallie's name mentioned on page 3.

The novel covers the years 1933 to 1940 and hops between the lives of eight members of the Vassar class of '33, each girl getting a chapter or two devoted to her. In rough order of appearance, they are:
  • Kay, energetic, enterprising, but ultimately defeated
  • Dottie, a proper Bostonian with a hidden sensuality
  • Helena, a wry observer, cynical about love
  • Pokey, jolly, lazy, and extremely rich
  • Libby, a gossip with literary pretensions
  • Priss, a serious-minded young mother
  • Polly, kind-hearted but impoverished by the Depression
  • Lakey, beautiful, haughty, and aristocratic
There is also Norine, who is not a Group member but stands as a contrast to it: slovenly in her habits and radical in her politics. By depicting scenes from the life of each girl (with flashbacks to their years at Vassar), McCarthy compares and contrasts their attitudes toward love, sex, politics, money, and other issues. For instance, she shows us Dottie's, Helena's, Pokey's, and their respective mothers' different reactions to the news that Kay's husband has been arrested for inciting a strike.

When it was first published in 1963, The Group became a bestseller largely due to its reputation as a "sexy book." (One of the characters in Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others even says "The first I ever learned about sex or diaphragms was from reading The Group.") From a 21st-century perspective, it fares differently: it may be a book about sex, but it is not a sexy book. The whole novel is resolutely anti-romantic and anti-erotic, with the male characters coming off very badly. If a man seems perfect at first, he'll try to rape you when you don't succumb to his advances. If a man is good in bed, he'll turn out to be a weak-willed womanizer. Polly and Dottie, the sweetest and most sympathetic girls, get burned the worst by love. Makes me glad I don't live back then!

Like Tess Slesinger in The Unpossessed, McCarthy satirizes her characters and their foibles. However, because she is writing in the 1960s about the 1930s, The Group has an extra satirical bite derived from hindsight. For instance, Kay has absorbed her doctor father's attitudes: "Birth control...was for those who knew how to use it and value it--the educated classes" (79) while "criminals and the unfit" should be sterilized (72). In sentences like these, you can hear McCarthy's mocking 1960s voice intrude to comment on the stupidity of these 1930s girls.

The Group is a fairly quick read, though dense at times because McCarthy rarely begins a new paragraph when someone else speaks. Her attention to detail means that it helps to know something about the trends and ideas of the 1930s (and of course, you'll get even more out of the book if you went to Vassar). These details successfully characterize each Group member: I especially appreciated how McCarthy slightly alters her writing style to reflect the voice of the girl whose life she is describing. For instance, Libby's chapters are loaded with words like "spiffy," "nifty," "splendiferous," and other breezy slang.

I am now intrigued by Mary McCarthy, as well. Like me, she was a Vassar girl from the Pacific Northwest. But she was ambitious and iconoclastic and not afraid to be satirical or contrarian...that's her reputation, anyway. Now I want to see for myself; as always, finishing one good book makes me add five more to my ever-growing reading list...

No comments: