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New Left Review I/24, March-April 1964


Fern Rich

‘The Group’

The Group. Mary McCarthy. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 18s.

Those who care deeply about the intimate thoughts and habits of the welleducated, upper-crust American female during the exhilarating Roosevelt era have an amusing enough evening ahead with Mary McCarthy’s latest novel. But her womanly insistence on naming names—loaded with nostalgia for Americans—is merely puzzling to the English reader who might become desperate trying to translate these into an English equivalent. Her characters work at Macy’s (Selfridges or Harrods?); shop at the A & P or Gristedes (Sainsbury’s or Jackson’s?); drink Maxwell House coffee (ah! at last, or does she really mean Lyons?). Chuffing off this meaningless minutiae, one is left with the narrative of eight girls, Class of ’33, Vassar, a college intent on teaching the very latest, very best ideas to young women whose families can afford it. In other words, with a fragment of American society. Because Miss McCarthy writes sharply, wittily and with insight this misses being a dull book. The defloration of a virgin scene is a masterpiece of clinical description and must be especially provocative to the new book-burners. Her heroines are determined to be with it, to enjoy the new freedoms won by women, to work in a man’s world, to enjoy sex for the sake of enjoying sex. There was the ‘etiquette of contraception . . . You had to look at it in terms of economics. No man of honour . . . would expect a girl to put up the doctor’s fee, plus the price of the pessary and the jelly and the douche bag, unless he planned to sleep with her long enough for her to recover her investment’. Somewhere along the line we hear the rumble of the Spanish Civil War and later the Battle of Britain, while our heroines assimilate Margaret Sangster, Arnold Gesell and emerge into the light of the new world of Spock. They have husbands who are stockbrokers or playwrights or pediatricians, but who are above all ‘progressive.’ America, a long time ago. Fern Rich

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