Virago, 2010 (1963)
The Group follows eight graduates from exclusive Vassar College as they find love and heartbreak, and choose careers and husbands against the backdrop of 1930s New York.
The Group follows the lives of a small group of college women in New York during the 1930s, beginning with the wedding of Kay Strong to a playwright, Harald Petersen, in a small impromptu ceremony that defies the traditions the other girls are used to. The book goes on to chart weddings, engagements, affairs, jobs and deaths as the decade progresses, dropping in on different members of the group at different points in time. In this way, the reader keeps up with the lives on the other women, which can be pieced together through peripheral appearances or the conversations of other characters. While Kay's story loosely structures the novel, each woman has her own thread, which is dropped and picked up again as the book progresses, as the group grows apart and come back together again, friendships changing and altering over time.
I thought The Group was excellent from start to finish. The gossiping and snide comments that go on at Kay's wedding is a great introduction to the women and the world they have been living in - social traditions, college customs (Kay, as the first girl in her class to announce her engagement, must run around the dining table at dinner), subtle class hierarchies between the women - and hints at the tone to come. The characters are well drawn, some more likable than others, but likability is not the issue here. These are often contradictory, sometimes confused women caught between tradition and modernity, expectations and reality, their own desires and the desires of others, whether husbands, lovers or parents.
The backdrop of the Depression and the emerging socialist and Communist political factions signals upheaval and change on a broader scale, but it is largely the personal upheaval and private decisions that make up the novel. It is change that Kay, Dottie, Lakey, Libby, Priss, Polly and the others are navigating as they try and forge their lives away from the halls of Vassar.
There is a definite theme of reality versus expectation, with joyous engagements leading to adultery, domestic violence and emotional abuse, grand jobs leading to drudgery and disappointment, 'nice' men who turn out to be monsters, and the men who just don't call. Motherhood is confusing and lonely rather than joyful. Though the book is rooted in the 1930s (and written in the 1960s), a lot of the issues remain recognisable. Is seeking out birth control sensible, or shameful? One of the women earns more than her husband - is she, then, emasculating him? Should new mothers be breast feeding or bottle feeding, and how should children be disciplined?
Throughout, the women remain central. Each takes a different path, and must deal with the good and the bad, often alone. This is a book about a group of friends, but not so much about friendship, other than as something that endures over time, even in absence (the final scenes are particularly touching in this regard, I thought). There are few day to day interactions between the women after they leave college, as each becomes isolated by her different circumstances and the men or careers they have chosen, away from their friends. The women gossip about each other, judging and disapproving in equal measure to the help and advice they offer, and in the end each is left to their own decisions and the consequences (or not) of their individual choices. I found The Group to be wonderfully written, sobering at times and quite melancholy in places, blackly funny in other places, and not without scenes that make you a little bit angry (to single one instance out, the scenes in the psychiatric hospital had me quite riled...). There is a certain warmth that cuts through the disillusion, and I was left wanting to know more about what happened to all the characters. Highly recommended!
Overall rating: 9/10
Book source: Borrowed from the library.