The front-cover blurb on my copy of Mary McCarthy's The Group proclaims that it's "a gem of American social history as well as very good fiction." Apparently, the "very good fiction" part was an afterthought on the reviewer's part. At one level, the "social history" bit makes perfect sense: the novel dissects a rarefied slice of American culture--namely, the world of upper-middle- and upper-class breeding, mostly Eastern, almost entirely female, as experienced by a group of Vassar graduates. To further the documentary illusion, McCarthy loads the narrative with references to "new" pop culture phenomena, new consumer goods, and new ideologies, some of which would have looked fairly dated by the early 1960s and many of which could now stand a few footnotes. McCarthy's young women are interested in anthropology and Communism, the latest advances in dishware and in child-rearing techniques; they frequently find themselves politely (and sometimes tragically) baffled by religious, racial, and class differences, none of which answer to the coping techniques learned at Vassar.
But McCarthy is not writing history, no matter how many historical references she packs into the narrative. Instead, she's interested in representing how her various female protagonists try--and often fail--to make sense of their apparently stable, actually perilous world. The novel begins in 1933, just a few years after the crash (which does in the family fortunes of a few characters), and ends shortly before WWII; in other words, the action takes place against the background of a deceptive calm, with financial calamity at one end and bloodshed looming at the other. Suggesting this precariousness is the ultimately failed marriage of Kay to a social outsider, Harald. Kay is dreamy and ambitious, but also impulsive and sometimes self-deceiving; Harald, through whom Kay initially yearns to realize her own aspirations, becomes a failed playwright and director who abuses Kay (both mentally and physically), cheats on her, and eventually commits her for a time to an insane asylum. (The latter is an oddly Victorian moment.) Kay, Harald, and their marriage knit the novel together: the narrative opens with their wedding, which highlights Harald's uncomfortable position, and closes with Kay's funeral, which also leads to the self-pitying Harald's summary ejection from the group's orbit.
We're told near the beginning that the girls fear becoming their parents: "The worst fate, they utterly agreed, would be to become like Mother and Dad, stuffy and frightened" (12). As the novel wryly demonstrates, however, most of the girls simply repeat their parents' fears in a different key. McCarthy spends much of the novel in free indirect discourse, subtly slipping from one young woman to another; the only man to whose consciousness we gain direct access is Hatton, an English butler--who, significantly, is dedicated to the cause of both keeping order in his household and performing as the "eternal model of the English butler" (200). The reader frequently suspects that McCarthy's characters are all "performing," whether performing the role of dutiful daughter and wife-to-be (the lovelorn Dottie) or the role of devoted mother (Priss). There's a pointed superficiality about everyone's devotion to various -ologies, ranging from earth-mother Norine and her allegiance to "Jung" and "some of the younger post-Freudians" ("[n]ot," she goes on to say, "that I don't owe a lot to Freud" ) to the various Communist sympathizers. The ring of jargon frequently obscures more than it clarifies, even as it also lends life a welcome air of clarity. While the girls try to discard their parents' comforting rituals, they nevertheless adopt the newest -ologies and -isms--not to mention consumer goods--that come to hand. As the rapid closing of ranks that follows Kay's death suggests, both young and old are all too eager to paper over any signs of chaos lurking beneath the superficial order of isms and things. This is all very different from a novel like Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, which is earnestly and solemnly descriptive (as well as analytical) in a way that The Group is not.