Book 38: The Group

 

"Helena, who was as immune to social snobbery as she was to the 'fond passion', had not felt the charm of the South Tower group to the same extent as Kay, but she raised no objections to the alliance, even though her teachers and her parents had worried a little, thinking, like Norine, that an 'exclusive elite' was a dangerous set to play in, for a girl who had real stuff in her." 

Dates read: March 30-April 2, 2016

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: NY Times Bestseller

My husband was my third serious boyfriend. We've been together for almost four years now and I think he's just the greatest thing since sliced bread. But as wonderful as he is and as much as I love him, I know that the deepest and most emotionally rich relationships I have right now are the ones I have with my close friends, Kailey and Crystal, that I've known since elementary school. They have known me and seen me and been there for me through my experiences growing up, through family conflict, through ugly breakups. They know me better than just about anybody and probably better than I know my own self. I believe that I'll be friends with Kailey and Crystal for the rest of my life.

So stories about female friendships and how they grow and change over time and through life experiences are catnip to me. Mary McCarthy's The Group follows eight young women who graduate from Vassar in 1933 and the course their lives take over the next seven years. The novel kicks off with the rather impulsive wedding of one of their number, Kay, to her long-distance and mysterious boyfriend Harald almost immediately after graduation. Kay's marriage (and its deterioration) make up the most coherent through-line of the story, which follows the members of the group one at a time as they make their way in the world (the world being 1930's New York for the most part) and continue to be involved in each other's lives. McCarthy's writing is sharp and insightful, and the characters she writes feel very real...all of them are self-deluding to some extent and McCarthy lets you "watch" them do it through her narration of their lives.

What struck me as I read this book, which was apparently enormously popular when it was published in the 60s, was how even though it was written 50 years ago and takes place another 30 years before that, it was so modern in many ways. Sure, some of the references are pretty dated, but the challenges these women face are largely similar to the ones we're continuing to face today: the difference between sex and love (and wanting the former to mean the latter even when you know it doesn't), dead-end relationships, sexism in the workplace, sexuality, marriage, raising kids. There's a character, Priss, who has a child and is struggling with the decision of whether to breast feed or bottle feed and the way she feels like she's doing it wrong depending on who's she's talking to. The Mommy Wars feel very current and endemic to the current social media-laden climate, but this book makes it obvious that it goes back waaay further than that. It's easy to feel like the stuff your generation is facing is new and different than the things that previous generations struggled with, but it's really much more similar than you might think. Plus ca change and all that.

Tell me, blog friends...do you still keep with high school and college friends?

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