Posts Tagged ‘Book_review’

the group cover

Of course Betty Draper is reading Mary McCarthy’s bestselling book “The Group.” It’s her kind of book. The 1963 bestseller follows the the lives of eight Vassar women from their graduation in the depths of the Great Depression to the brink of American involvement in World War II. Cosmopolitan called it “juicy, shocking, witty and almost continually brilliant.” What’s not to love? For Betty,the Bryn Mawr grad and former jet-setting fashion model, this is just the sort of book that would capture her imagination.

In the episode “The Color Blue,” Betty is absorbed in the book, the way few characters seldom are on a modern TV drama. Like many people drawn into a good book, she is reading it all day long. She’s reading it while soaking in the tub and picks it up again after dinner while Sally does her homework.

This is entirely appropriate given the novel in question. Mary Mc Carthy was more than just a popular novelist. She was something of a literary legend. “The Group” is steeped in details, some imagined, but many of them subtle and not-so-subtle twists on McCarthy’s real-life college experiences. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1962, shortly before the book’s publication, McCarthy said that she conceived the book as a type of progress novel. She wanted to show the “idea of progress in the female sphere … economics, architecture, domestic technology, child bearing, the study of technology in the home, in the playpen, in the bed,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a history of the loss of faith of progress, in the idea of progress in that 20 year period.” The characters were composites of the girls she knew at school, but said that all of their mothers were in the book. “That’s the part I kind of like the best,” she said.

Critics focused, with varying degrees of approval, on what McCarthy called “the feminine sphere.” The New York Times was impressed by the book’s close study of women’s daily lives “in and out of battles, beds and rather contagious boredom.”

Because of its focus on housewives working women, society matrons and publishing assistants, it was easy to dismiss McCarthy’s decision to focus on consumerist details instead of The Big Issues. But even Norman Mailer, who led the charge on this front (and may have missed the entire point of the novel in the process) stopped to admire McCarthy’s ability to use the details of everyday objects and conversations to add depth and insight to her characters. “The real interplay of the novel, ” Mailer wrote, “exists between the characters and the objects which surround them.”

McCarthy’s relentless skewering of the male characters was also notable. “The men in their lives are satirized mercilessly,” the Times wrote. “[T]hey deserve their places in Miss McCarthy’s lampooning carnival. … I got the impression that she was reversing the cast of one of those minor war novels in which the leading characters are not quite human beings but rather representatives of carefully assorted milieus and callings. No heroes here, at any rate. A bunch of sad sacks, compared to the heroines.”

Even though the novel took place 30 years earlier, someone like Betty who’s focused almost solely on herself, her own vague unhappiness and dissatisfaction, she must have identified with McCarthy’s upper class college girls, their sorry consorts and the loss of faith in progress.


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