I am reading it avidly, but I wouldn’t say it’s a classic.
Published in 1963, this well-written blockbuster is an outrageously frank women’s novel and a precursor of Jeffrey Eugenides’s more literary The Marriage Plot (his heroine Madeleine reminds me of McCarthy’s character, Kay Strong), mixed with a soupcon of Jacquelyn Susann’s Valley of The Dolls (though that wasn’t published till 1966).
Ah, the ’60s. When writers like Doris Lessing, Mary McCarthy, Sue Kauffman, and Joan Didion told the truth.
The Group is the story of eight Vassar graduates, class of 1933, whose lives continue to mesh after graduation. (McCarthy also graduated from Vassar in 1933.) Although the characters are predominantly well-to-do, they have that Seven Sisters college determination to make a difference: they teach nursery school, work at Macy’s, are freelance manuscript readers for publishing companies, and work for the New Deal the National Recovery Administration.
They have lots of sex.
In my favorite scene, Kay and Dottie go together to be fitted for diaphragms (still the best form of birth control). Dottie has researched the history of contraception, from plugs used by the ancient Egyptians to Margaret Sanger’s discovery of the diaphragm in Holland.
But practicing the insertion isn’t easy for Dottie.
“Her bad moment came when she was learning how to insert the pessary by herself…. As she was trying to fold the pessary, the slippery thing, all covered with jelly, jumped out of her grasp and shot across the room and hit the sterilizer. Dottie could have died. But apparently this was nothing new to the doctor and the nurse. “Try again, Dorothy,” said the doctor calmly, selecting another diaphragm of the right size from the drawer.”
Kay is astonished by Dottie’s boldness and resourcefulness. Although Kay, the most bohemian of the group, is married to Harald Petersen, an obnoxious playwright, she hasn’t gotten around to birth control. But Dottie, after one night with an artist, does the research and makes the appointments.
There are also Lakey, a snobbish, rich beauty from Lake Forest who goes to Europe; Helena from Cleveland, a bit of a bluestocking, but she seems the brightest and has a good sense of humor, too; Pokey, a rich, rather stupid, but kind woman; Polly (I don’t know much about her yet); Priss, who works for the NRA (National Recovery Administration); Libby, who wants to break into publishing as an editor, not a writer; and Norine, a leftist Vassar graduate housewife who resents “the group” and has an affair with Kay’s husband.
Jonathan Leaf said in his recent excellent article in The Weekly Standard, “Quite Contrary: A Reintroduction to Mary McCarthy,” that The Group “stands up far better than the more lauded titles of, say, James Baldwin or Norman Mailer.” He may well be right. Well, I’m not a particular fan of Baldwin or Mailer.
The Group is worth a read.
Critics love Mark Haddon’s The Red House. Though I wasn’t a fan of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I read for a book group like everyone else, I was willing to try his third novel after skimming a good review. (I’ll read the review thoroughly after I’ve finished the book).
The writing is at least three times better than in Haddon’s first novel.
Isn’t it wonderful when you find a book you like unreservedly by a well-known living author?
Haddon writes about a family vacation. It is not the vacation from hell, but close. Angela, a teacher at an inner-city school, is raging after her mother’s death from Alzheimer’s. Her successful brother, Richard, a doctor, paid for their mother’s care but never visited. Now Richard has invited Angela and her family for a week’s vacation on the Welsh border near Hay-on-Wye , and after all these years she doesn’t know what he wants.
Angela is also furious about Richard’s new family. He has recently married Louisa, a sexy lower-class woman who doesn’t quite follow all that Richard says and does, whose daughter, Melissa, is a teenage bitchy beauty with no empathy for others.
I can’t help but like Angela. You can see why she resents Richard: he gets a family without going through the years of struggle. She is a fat, middle-aged woman stuck supporting her family financially, and though she loves them, they are not a particularly rewarding bunch. Her laid-back husband, Dominc, is content to work at Waterstones and is having an affair with a whiny single mother. Their three children, Alex, a jock who loves history, Daisy, a born-again Christian, and Benjy, who likes toy swords and Harry Potter, are absorbed in their own lives and only marginally involved with her.
The action develops in jumps and starts, as Haddon alternates the stories of the eight characters, narrating from a third-person point of view. Because the scenes are short, it is a very fast read, though it takes a while to get to know the characters. Sometimes Haddon writes in poetic fragments, and he also quotes short passages the books they are reading, like Dracula. Personally I love the fragments, but if you don’t care for them, they’re soon over.
There are the usual trips to town, canoe trips, and picnics. Angela wants as much time to herself as she can get, and is always going to town by herself, and the horrible Melissa, who has driven one friend to attempt suicide by a photo she took of her having sex at a party, also likes to stay out of the group.
Everybody has problems. Alex and Daisy are both attracted to Melissa, who is used to it and bored by it. Angela is fantasizing about being a mother to the malformed daughter she miscarried 18 years ago. Richard is being sued at work for misreading an x-ray. Dominic wonders if he should stop having an affair.
This is an entertaining, beautifully-written novel about modern family life, and with 40 pages to go, I can recommend it.