31 Jul 2012

Women in a Time of Change

A while back I read "The Best of Everything" by Rona Jaffe and my review was pretty raving: I loved it! So when I heard that others who like "The Best of Everything", also liked Mary McCarthy's "The Group", there was no way around it. I had to have it. Last week, when my boyfriend and I went on vacation, I started reading "The Group" on the train to Gatwick airport and pretty much from the first page, I was hooked. 

"The Group" is a eight young women, all graduates of Vassar, who become close friends during their college years. The novel follows them as they leave their college days behind to pursue love, careers and plans for the future. As characters, they are very different and the focus of the novel shifts from one girl to the next so that we get to understand their individual stories one at a time while glimpsing the all of them in each others stories. It is a genius way to to tell the story of this group of girls and it kept me reading furiously, as I tried to understand how their lives interwove and how their actions impacted each other. 

What becomes very clear from the stories of these girls is, that they are living in time of change. World War I, the depression, the changing roles of women, of marriage, of sex. These are a generation of women who have to find their own way in life because the world has changed tremendously since their mothers were young. They are all keen to make a difference, to do something meaningful with their lives in a world where nothing is as it once was. As a historical novel, it works beautifully. 

For me, however, the history aspects were an advantage but not the main advantage. I found that one of the best things about "The Group" is that there are no clear goodies or baddies emerging from the stories, each of us readers will root for a different girl and who we root for might change. Personally, I found the bohemian "women who loves too much" Kay slightly exasperating and Priss made me want to shake some sense into her. However, I suspect that many others will see Kay as a hero because of her fierce pursuit of her ambition to "do good" in New York. 

My favourites changed a bit as I read but at the end of the book, I was found that three girls had made most impression on made and had come closest to my heart: 

Dottie for her robbed innocence and her steely character as she realizes that sometimes the happy ending will look different to what we imagined. 

Polly for her maturity and her insistence that what counts is that she is happy - not other peoples perception of her or her circumstances in life. 

And last but not least the beautiful and fascinating Lakey who is understood to live a charmed existence in glamorous Europe but who turns out to be the girl who may have most to fight for. 

Read it if: You like "The Best of Everything" by Rona Jaffe, "Valley of the Dolls" by Jacqueline Susann. You wouldn't mind going back in time and visiting 1930s New York. 


  1. I would usually say that a novel (especially the size of The Group) focusing on so many characters has a high chance to fail, but also thought that McCarthy did a great job is creating distinguishable people.

  2. I agree Alex. I was really worried that it would become a bit messy with too many characters that I wouldn't be able to "care" about but she manages to make them all come to life. I think it's the mix of flaws and virtues that make it work.