Friday, October 26, 2012

The Group

by Sheila Connolly

I was reminded this week by an article in The New York Times (in the Styles section, not the book section) that the author Mary McCarthy would have been one hundred years old this year.

McCarthy's book The Group (published in 1962) had a significant impact on my life. I grew up in a simpler time, or so it seems looking back now.  Few of my high school friends dated at all, much less enjoyed a sustained relationship with a boy. Forget about having S*E*X—we didn't even talk about it, much less do it.  All right, we weren't totally na├»ve, and we all knew about those girls who "went away" for a few months. There was even one classmate who was dating a football player a year younger, who became pregnant and flaunted it, sitting in the bleachers for all his football games.  That was unusual back then.

The Group was one of those books we (girls) passed around, concealed in a deceptive cover, and we all read it eagerly.  If I were to reread it now (and I could, because I own a copy), I'm sure I'd find it delightfully innocent, but when it was first published, it was daring.

I'm not going to analyze the book; mainly I'm looking to retrieve my memories and to understand why the book was so important to me.  In the book, a group of young women meet and form friendships at a women's college (modeled on Vassar, McCarthy's alma mater, before it went coed), and then take the first steps into their own independent lives.  To say that the author laid out all possible avenues—career, marriage, relationships without marriage, and even (gasp) a lesbian relationship—reduces the book to formula, and fails to convey the strengths of the characters as written.  They weren't all successful, and they weren't all happy, but to the younger me, they were believable.

The Group made me want to attend a women's college.  And I did:  I applied to only one college, early decision.  I was accepted, and that decision shaped my life.  I know, that sounds a bit over-dramatic, but it's true.  I had no idea what my second choice would have been, because thanks to McCarthy, my vision for the college experience was crystal-clear.

I wanted the friendships that McCarthy described, and I found them.  Sure, there were some rocky times, and issues between some of us, and ever-shifting allegiances.  For example, after a few months I told my freshman roommate to her face that I couldn't stand living with her and more or less forced her to move out of our shared dorm room.  Guess what:  we're still friends, and we still get together now and then.

Of course I couldn't know when I read The Group that the ongoing history of our friendships would be important.  We all shared a critical experience during our college years, circa 1970.  The world was changing around us—fast—and we all had one foot in the past and one in the future. That gives all of us a unique perspective of that time. And that makes us a special group even within our generation.

Celia McGee, the author of the NYT article, says, "Those among us who do not remember our first time with "The Group"…raise a hand." I'm sitting on my hands, because I remember it well.

Can you name a book that played an important part in how you have lived your real life?

1 comment:

Julia Buckley said...

Never read this book--but I'm interested now!