Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
On Post-Grad Girl Gangs
By Roxanne Fequiere
“Based on the novel by Mary McCarthy, The Group was one of the slickest and most highly publicized cinematic soap operas of the 1960s. Filmed largely in New York, the story charts the exploits of eight young women, all of whom graduate from an exclusive Vassar-ish college in the middle of the Depression.” So began my introduction to The Group a few years ago by way of some idle iTunes Store browsing.
The rest of the film’s description beckoned to me like so much catnip, my movie library stocked as it was with titles like The Best of Everything, Dreamgirls, Valley of the Dolls, and 1939’s The Women. I’m an unabashed sucker for any story that focuses its lens on a group of women living and loving with a mid-20th century backdrop. I purchased The Group immediately and hunkered down for two and a half hours of hopefully covetable costuming, slightly stilted dialogue, and soapy plot twists. It didn’t disappoint.
By the time I finally got around to reading 1963’s The Group, I’d developed a mild obsession with the 1966 film. Much like the movie version of Valley of the Dolls or Funny Girl, every scene had a distinctly ’60s look to it—despite being set in, say, 1933—lending the whole thing a vaguely campy air. Mary McCarthy’s original story has almost none of that levity. As Pauline Kael wrote of McCarthy and the fictional friend group she created, “She beats up on those girls.”
That’s not to say that any of the various misfortunes that befall McCarthy’s group seem particularly outlandish or unbelievable: controlling and abusive husbands, cash flow issues, infidelity, aging parents, motherhood struggles, stalled careers. It’s just that it’s jarring to encounter these unfortunate events at every turn. The Group doesn’t have much of an overall plot—rather, individual character vignettes that feature some assortment of friend cameos—but if it had to be summarized, the general takeaway appears to be that while higher education can be something of an oasis for smart, ambitious young women, it would behoove them to realize that the real world will waste no time knocking them down several pegs. It’s a grim prognosis, but, even decades after the fact, it’s not wrong.
Perhaps it’s those bleak overtones that made reading The Group in the days leading up to my wedding in late September feel so odd. The book begins with the nuptials of Kay, the first of the group to get married and the starting point of her troubles. More unfortunate pairings soon follow. I found that the chasm between the matrimonial excitement I was feeling and the dour, cynical treatment of matrimony in the book I was reading was giving me a sort of spiritual whiplash, not to mention a splash of anxiety. I carried on uneasily.
As my own wedding drew nearer, though, my own group began to assemble. Seven bridesmaids, comprised of cousins, and friends from high school, college, and postgraduate life; some of them single, and some with husbands and children; some of them local and others flying in from Los Angeles.
There were events to attend and things to be done, but we took every opportunity we could find to talk, in groups and one-on-one, about everything: our pure joy at being in attendance and in each other’s presence and reminiscences of our countless memories together, but also career frustrations and stray annoyances perpetuated one of our significant others that felt inextricably linked to much larger issues. We talked about our former selves, the parts that make us proud and the parts that make us cringe. We talked about the struggles of partnerships and the inherent uncertainties of promising forever to someone else. We encouraged each other to cut a generally good guy some slack and to please, please, let a toxic guy go for good.
Here was another way in which the book I was reading diverged from my own experience as a smart, ambitious young woman making her way in the world, one that didn’t spike my blood pressure. Whereas McCarthy’s characters mostly flailed in the deep end of single-occupancy pools, I was lucky enough to find myself among women for whom keeping up appearances was less important than the comfort of community. Our willingness to be honest and vulnerable with each other wouldn’t end on the occasion of taking vows—these are the women I would rely on when the world knocked me down a peg.
I’d found the healthy distance I needed from the narrative I held in my hands. I finished the book, got married, and carried on. If this pairing turns out to be an unfortunate one, I know exactly whom I’ll turn to for support.