Growing up, finally, with Mary McCarthy's 1954 novel "The Group"
Novel Gazing is Electric Literature’s personal essay series about the way reading shapes our lives. This time, we asked: What’s a book that changed your mind?
I was always skeptical of The Group, Mary McCarthy’s 1954 novel about the Vassar Class of ’33. Frankly, I figured it would bore me. I doubted that I’d relate to the struggles of eight women graduating from college in the aftermath of the Great Depression; these days, I’m barely interested in books that take place before the advent of the internet.
But it was free, and easily available, sitting on a community bookshelf outside a coffee shop in my neighborhood in New York. The cover was crumbling, but the pages were intact. Whenever I’m looking for a new book, my test is to read the first paragraph, and if I don’t find the opening lines compelling, I leave it on the stacks. With The Group, I accidentally missed the first paragraph and thumbed a few pages in, my eyes landing on the phrase “copious menstruation.” I laughed out loud, took the book home, and crammed it above a row on my own overflowing bookshelf.
I’d moved to New York from Boston in September to be closer to a man with whom I’d been in a long-distance relationship for two years. We moved into a gorgeous one-bedroom, my first, in his favorite part of Inwood. It was nice at first. We merged the art and cookbooks we’d been buying for each other; we brought in furniture his father had built many years ago, that we’d restored together. We were both finishing graduate school – I study literature at Harvard, he does physics at NYU – and confronting the pressures of the dissertation year and the job market.
Our romance had been something of a fairy tale. We’d met on the street one summer day when he was visiting a friend in Boston. Our one night-stand stand turned into a fling, which became a full-fledged relationship. On our fight night together, he identified his favorite spot on my body: the curve of waist, ribcage to hip, that is exaggerated when I lie on my side. Two years later, he still liked to put his hand there with a feeling somewhere between reverence and ownership.
He had a drinking problem, but in our two years together, I’d helped him confront it, and steadied him on his path to sobriety. In solidarity, I never drank around him. We visited each other every three weeks, then every two weeks. When not together, spoke every night, including during the months I’d spent in Europe on a research trip. We were passionately in love and it made all the sense in the world that, as soon as I was able to leave Cambridge, we’d move in together. Even his alcoholism didn’t ding the armor of perfection I thought he wore. It only gave the armor a lovely patina.
In December, three months after we moved in, he relapsed. I knew about a couple incidents in which he’d gotten drunk—isolated ones, I thought. By January, we were fighting constantly and I kept catching him exchanging flirtatious texts with a colleague. I never found evidence that he had slept with her, but I kept feeling compelled to unlock his phone and read the messages they exchanged. And Dan Savage is right, snoopers always find what they’re looking for. Sometimes it made me so angry, I became violent, throwing wooden spoons while I stood at the stove or grabbing his neck, my manicured fingernails long enough to leave a mark. In early February, I decided to leave for two weeks, not the city but the apartment. I’d stay with friends, drinking in their sympathy and more wine than I had consumed in, well, two years. On my way out the door, I grabbed that stray copy of The Group and threw it in my backpack. I started reading it that night, on a friend’s couch in Crown Heights.
The eponymous group is eight women: Kay Strong, Elinor “Lakey” Eastlake, Dottie Renfrew, Polly Andrews, Priss Hartshorn, Pokey Prothero, Libby MacAusland and, my favorite, Helena Davison. They were all best friends in college which means, then as now, they all relate to each other with varying levels of envy, resentment, and condescension. The book begins soon after their graduation when they’ve mostly all moved to New York.
They’re all different, well-developed, three-dimensional (except Pokey, who basically provides comic relief, with her pilot’s license and puddle jumper that she uses to fly to agricultural courses at Cornell). They all have their conflicts, but the question they all struggle with is this: what kind of woman do I want to be? What kind of marriage do I want, if, they think, decades before Lisa Simpson, I choose to get married? Each one fancies herself modern, nothing at all like Mother and Daddy, but they have to face the realities of New York, the job market, sex and relationships to figure out what it means to be modern women.
I related to every single character; each one of them had problems that seemed an aspect of my own. Helena, who narrates events in her head even as they occur to her, preparing how she’ll later write them down or, more likely, relate them to her mom back in Cleveland. Polly who, when a relationship with a more experienced man ends, admits she never belonged among the built-in furniture he had in his beautiful office. “I’m a knickknack,” she tells him. And poor Priss, a victim of mansplaining avant la lettre.
But most of all, Kay, who had lately been the most devil-may-care member of the group. Outspoken to the point of coarseness, untamable, her move to New York was the most natural thing in the world, especially after all those steamy weekends she spent in the city with the romantic and impressive Harald Petersen. The book begins at their wedding; on the first page, Kay becomes Kay (Strong) Petersen.
Harald has a drinking problem, and a responsibility problem. When he gets fired from the theater he’s been working at, Kay wonders if he hadn’t been drunk on the job, but he claims it was because he refused to give in to the director’s advances:
“It was an uninviting prospect. The old fruit must be forty.” For a second, Kay was relieved and, at the same time (wasn’t that queer?), almost let down; then a fresh suspicion attacked her. “Harald! Do you mean you would have done it with someone younger? A chorus boy?” She felt sick thinking of the nights had had worked late, and yet there was this funny itch to know. “I can’t answer hypothetical questions,” Harald said, rather impatiently.
Kay suspects that Harald is unfaithful, but she doesn’t know for sure. The reader does, though, because Helena walks in on him in full canoodle with another woman. But Kay has no evidence, and she becomes trapped by the combination of distrust and a disinclination to express it. She’s also terrified of becoming an old-fashioned nag – she’s a modern woman, after all – even as she sees Harald yield to an increasingly dangerous drinking habit.
Harald had gone to the kitchen and fixed himself a gin and bitters; this was a bad sign – he knew Kay hated the taste of straight liquor and did not like to see him drink it. Now he put tobacco in his pipe, lit it, and poured a second. “What can I fix you?” he said. “A silver fizz?” Kay frowned; she was wounded by the mocking courtesy of his manner. “I don’t think I’ll have anything,” she replied thoughtfully. Harald’s dark, wiry eyebrows shot up. “Why this departure?” he said. Kay had suddenly determined to turn over a new leaf, but she felt this was not quite the right moment to announce it; you never knew how Harald would take things when he had been drinking. “I just don’t feel like it,” she said. “I’m going to start dinner.” She rose from her chair. Harald stared at her, with his hands on his hips and pursed lips. “My God!” he said. “You are the most tactless, blundering fool that ever lived.” “But what have I said?” cried Kay, too astonished, even, to be hurt. “’I don’t think I’ll have anything,’” he quoted, imitating her voice and adding a smug note that she could swear had not been there when she spoke. If only he knew, she was dying for a silver fizz.
I didn’t know what a silver fizz was (now I do: it’s gin, egg white, sugar, and lemon, all fizzed up), but I was becoming intimately familiar with the fear of saying the wrong thing to stop someone drinking. And I was learning about how name-calling works in the context of a relationship. It’s a seemingly powerless thing that completely disarms you, harms you. It’s a speech-act that turns you into the thing you’re accused of being. Harald weaponizes Kay’s outspokenness, even when she’s trying to rein it in. When my partner called me an asshole, a dick, an egotistical prick, the most hypocritical person he knows, he convinced me that I was.
During the two weeks my partner and I spent apart, I tore through the book, literally and figuratively. The paperback edition I had was the perfect size to fit in my purse, so I read it on long subway rides between the tippy-top of Manhattan where I lived, and the navel of Brooklyn, where I had gone to recover. But this copy had been printed in 1964, and had been left out on a community bookshelf by god knows who for god knows how long. It was crumbling in my hands. Every time I turned a page, I ripped the brittle paper. Its yellowed pages left ticker tape in my purse, on my lap, on the subway floor. I knew I’d be this copy’s final reader. Both covers loosed themselves, I taped them back on. The corners of the front cover and the first twenty or so pages were falling off too, until it looked like a limestone quarry. It was beautiful, but vulnerable.
Each chapter of the book switches perspective. Now you’re with Libby, who expects a marriage proposal from her new beau, and is subjected to his rape attempt instead. Now you’re with Dottie, who parts with her virginity cavalierly but is humiliated when her deflowerer rejects her offer of occasional NSA sex. It’s enough to drive her out of New York, but even after she becomes engaged to a kind Arizona widower, she still longs for good old Dick (McCarthy here anticipating Chris Kraus).
Each chapter was shocking, and shockingly familiar. Reading it on the train, I would gasp audibly. I would weep silently, reaching into the pocket of my old-fashioned cowl-necked wool coat for a handkerchief. I felt so in sync with these women that a group experience of “copious menstruation” couldn’t be far off.
I didn’t manage to stay away from my partner for the full two weeks. He had a crisis at work, and so I went back, wanting to be there for him, and also sick of cooking thank-you dinners and sleeping on couches. But he kept drinking, even more than I realized, more nights than not. He’d fall asleep and I’d go through his phone, looking for evidence of his infidelity. And I kept finding it. It was worse than I had suspected. His flirtation with his colleague had persisted, and there were other women, women with whom he was sexual and explicit. It didn’t seem like he had slept with any of them. No plans to meet were ever made, no details about encounters, even when he and I had been apart. Unless it had been arranged over the phone? Kay was right: “You could not love a man who was always playing hide-and-seek with you; that was the lesson she had learned.”
This is Kay’s revelation when she wakes up in the Payne Whitney Clinic, a psychiatric hospital. Harald had come home the previous day at seven in the morning; Kay knew he was drunk, and suspected he’d been unfaithful. He became violent, she threatened him with a kitchen knife, the police were called. Eventually he convinces her to check into a hospital, they could have some space from each other. She could rest, recover. But she’d been tricked; he’d had her committed. Until he shows up and signs her release papers, the doctors will assume that her black eye was self-inflicted.
When she realizes this, she doesn’t feel hurt or angry, but heartbroken. “She was grieving, she decided, for a Harald-That-Never-Was, not for the real Harald. But if she lost the real Harald, who was not such a muchness, she lost her only link with the Harald-That-Never-Was. Then it was really finished, her dream.”
I read that scene on my way back to Brooklyn. The night before, I’d found more messages with yet another woman. I also found the largest bottle of whiskey I’d ever seen—although “found” may be the wrong word. It wasn’t even hidden this time. It was on the floor in a black plastic bag, surrounded by the laundry he’d needed to borrow money to have cleaned. Every other time I’d found incriminating messages and woken him up, he’d first deny it, claiming I was reading into these texts. Then he’d admit it, and beg me not to leave him.
This time had been different. This time, I’d woken him up by pouring liquor all over him, shouting “You want your life soaked in whiskey?” This time, he’d become violent. This time, the police were called. How many times did I need this to happen?
I felt like a caricature of myself, so outlandish, a character from a 1930’s melodrama. How could I love someone who was always playing hide-and-seek with me?
This time, there was no begging in the morning. Just an acknowledgment that it was really finished, our dream.
Two days later, riding the Manhattan-bound A to collect my things, I reached the end of the book. It ends seven years after it began, at Kay’s funeral. The 1930s are over, and she has died falling out a window, in what is almost certainly a suicide.
The Group is a collective coming-of-age story. The women are college graduates, and they think they’ve stepped fully into adulthood. But adulthood isn’t an age; it’s a stage you earn, through suffering, I suppose, and disappointment. By the end of the book, they have, collectively, dealt with: miscarriage, divorce, infidelity, assault, and the death of a peer. (And a lot of communism. Practically the only aspect of the book that’s dated is the debate between communists and Trotskyites.)
For most of my adult life, I’ve felt like I was only playing at adulthood. Even moving in with my partner felt like playing house. Now I’m subletting a room in an apartment with two women who are five years my junior. In some ways, it feels like a step backwards to be returning to a shared bathroom and a refrigerator full of redundant dairy products, bought because we don’t share. But in another way, I’ve never felt more mature. Alcoholism ages you, even if you’re not the alcoholic. I can’t tell if it’s the lighting in this new shared bathroom or the fact that the mirror hasn’t been cleaned since the lease was last signed, but my hair looks 20% grayer than it did two months ago. Moving out of the apartment I shared with my boyfriend was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. But I couldn’t stay and wait for my life to deteriorate further.
When I finished the book, I thought about getting a tattoo of the disintegrated cover and the striations of the first few pages. I’d remove the title, the author’s name, and the daisy chain illustration (the Daisy Chain, capitalized thusly, is a symbol throughout the book of I don’t know what). It would be what was left of the book: an almost-rectangle, now a palimpsest. It would be a break-up tattoo, and I’d put it on that curve of my waist, where my now-ex liked to put his hand.
But a tattoo, like they say about suicide, is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I didn’t want those months, that night, that pain etched permanently into my body. I can let the book disintegrate, and the relationship too. Kay dropped the Strong from her name. I’m just finding mine.