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"Given the attention paid to relations between the sexes, it would be tempting to call The Group a forerunner of today's chick lit. It's not."
So writes Candace Bushnell, the writer behind the TV series Sex and the City, in the introduction to this new Virago Modern Classics edition of The Group by Mary McCarthy. First published in 1963, this novel is about the lives of a group of young women after leaving college in 1933, including careers, relationships, sex, babies, parents, and money.
McCarthy herself graduated from Vassar in 1933 as do her characters, though I didn't have a sense that any one character was based on her. The story opens with a wedding - Kay is the first of "the group" to get married and the other seven women all attend - then the narrative shifts between several different group members.
Dottie loses her virginity to a man she meets at Kay's wedding and goes to get herself fitted with contraception, and the frankness of these chapters quite early in the book must have been quite shocking when it was first published. The sex scenes are quite explicit but not very romantic.
One of my favourite chapters was about Priss's struggle to breastfeed her newborn son in hospital, and her feeling of being caught between conflicting theories about feeding and caring for a newborn baby. Her husband, a doctor, has one opinion, her mother has another. Priss's vulnerability as a new mum is portrayed with frightening accuracy, and it is quite startling for a novel that is nearer 40 than 50 and set 30 years earlier.
Meanwhile, the cracks in Kay's marriage to Harald are soon apparent - she would have liked to work in the theatre but needs to take a job in Macy's earning money while he pontificates himself out of the job she would have loved to do. These women are intelligent and highly educated, and come from quite a privileged section of society, but as women in a very sexist society they soon face a lot of difficulties.
I think McCarthy was more concerned with the issues she wanted to write about and portraying the experience of her generation of women than with creating likeable characters. The novel is written in the third person and sometimes the writing distances the reader from the characters - we can often see a lot that they do not. I didn't like Libby much at all and found Kay and Dottie very naive. Polly was the most sympathetic and attractive character of those whose story is told in detail.
As The Group is not chicklit, there are few fairytale endings for the women in this novel. Some resolutions are better than others, but McCarthy was interested in a realistic portrait of how the lives of these women were likely to turn out.
I was a bit sceptical about the choice of Candace Bushnell to write the introduction to this edition - it seemed like quite a cynical ploy to present the novel as a forerunner of Sex and the City. In fact the introduction sets out very well what impressed Bushnell as a writer herself about the book, and its place as a feminist classic.
Available at a cover price of £7.99, currently at Amazon for £5.59.
This review originally appeared in a slightly different form under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk.