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The Book Trail: The American Edition

I am beginning this book trail with a novel which I’ve not read, but is by an author whose prose I recently discovered and love.  As ever, I am using the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature to generate the rest of the list.

 

1. The Sorrow Proper by Lindsey Drager 23129799
The Sorrow Proper is a novel-length investigation of the anxiety that accompanies change. A group of aging librarians must decide whether to fight or flee from the end of print and the rise of electronic publications, while the parents of the young girl who died in front of the library struggle with their role in her loss. Anchored by the transposed stories of a photographer and his deaf mathematician lover each mourning the other’s death, The Sorrow Proper attempts to illustrate how humans of all relations—lovers, parents, colleagues—cope with and challenge social “progress,” a mechanism that requires we ignore, and ultimately forget, the residual in order to make room for the new, to tell a story that resists “The End.”  This debut novel explores the hypothetical end of the public library system and a young theory in the hard sciences called Many Worlds, a branch of quantum mechanics that strives to prove mathematically that our lives do not follow a singular, linear path.’

 

2. Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards by Robert Olen Butler
For many years Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler has collected picture postcards from the early twentieth century-not so much for the pictures on the fronts but for the messages written on the backs, little bits of the captured souls of people long since passed away. Using these brief messages of real people from another age, Butler creates fully imagined stories that speak to the universal human condition. In “Up by Heart,” a Tennessee miner is called upon to become a preacher, and then asked to complete an altogether more sinister task. In “The Ironworkers’ Hayride,” a young man named Milton embarks on a romantic adventure with a girl with a wooden leg. From the deeply moving “Carl and I,” where a young wife writes a postcard in reply to a card from her husband who is dying of tuberculosis, to the eerily familiar “The One in White,” where a newspaper reporter covers an incident of American military adventurism in a foreign land, these are intimate and fascinating glimpses into the lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary age.

 

2431963. Cathedrals of the Flesh: My Search for the Perfect Bath by Alexia Brue
Caught up in the tide of travel and exploration, Alexia drifts further away from the life she left behind in New York City. Hoping to find a thriving local bath scene, she dips into hamams, banyas, saunas, and onsen, finding both disappointment and bliss. This work is an account of one woman’s determination to follow her passion.

 

4. Feet on the Street: Rambles Around New Orleans by Roy Blount Jr.
The book is divided into eight Rambles through different parts of the city. Each closes with lagniappe—a little bit extra, a special treat for the reader: here a brief riff on Gennifer Flowers, there a meditation on naked dancing. Roy Blount knows New Orleans like the inside of an oyster shell and is only too glad to take us to both the famous and the infamous sights. He captures all the wonderful and rich history—culinary, literary, and political—of a city that figured prominently in the lives of Jefferson Davis (who died there), Truman Capote (who was conceived there), Zora Neale Hurston (who studied voodoo there), and countless others, including Andrew Jackson, Lee Harvey Oswald, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Jelly Roll Morton, Napoléon, Walt Whitman, O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe, Earl Long, Randy Newman, Edgar Degas, Lillian Hellman, the Boswell Sisters, and the Dixie Cups.  Above all, though, Feet on the Street is a celebration of friendship and joie de vivre in one of America’s greatest and most colorful cities, written by one of America’s most beloved humorists.’

 

5. High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline by Jim 11323031Rasenberger
A powerful first-hand account of the many generations and ethnic groups of men who have built America’s skyscrapers.  From the early days of steel construction in Chicago, through the great boom years of New York city ironwork, and up through the present, High Steel follows the trajectory of careers inextricably linked to both great accomplishment and catastrophic disaster.  The personal stories reveal the lives of ironworkers and the dangers they face as they walk across the windswept, swaying summits of tomorrow’s skyscrapers, balanced on steel girders sometimes only six inches wide. Rasenberger explores both the greatest accomplishments of ironwork—the vaulting bridges and towers that define America’s skyline—and the deadliest disasters, such as the Quebec Bridge Collapse of 1907, when 75 ironworkers, including 33 Mohawk Indians, fell to their deaths. High Steel is an accessible, thrilling, and vertiginous portrait of the lives of some of our most brave yet unrecognized men.

 

6. American Passage: The History of Ellis Island by Vincent J. Cannato
For most of New York’s early history, Ellis Island had been an obscure little island that barely held itself above high tide. Today the small island stands alongside Plymouth Rock in our nation’s founding mythology as the place where many of our ancestors first touched American soil. Ellis Island’s heyday—from 1892 to 1924—coincided with one of the greatest mass movements of individuals the world has ever seen, with some twelve million immigrants inspected at its gates. In American Passage, Vincent J. Cannato masterfully illuminates the story of Ellis Island from the days when it hosted pirate hangings witnessed by thousands of New Yorkers in the nineteenth century to the turn of the twentieth century when massive migrations sparked fierce debate and hopeful new immigrants often encountered corruption, harsh conditions, and political scheming.  American Passage captures a time and a place unparalleled in American immigration and history, and articulates the dramatic and bittersweet accounts of the immigrants, officials, interpreters, and social reformers who all play an important role in Ellis Island’s chronicle. Cannato traces the politics, prejudices, and ideologies that surrounded the great immigration debate, to the shift from immigration to detention of aliens during World War II and the Cold War, all the way to the rebirth of the island as a national monument. Long after Ellis Island ceased to be the nation’s preeminent immigrant inspection station, the debates that once swirled around it are still relevant to Americans a century later.

 

19680307. The World in a City: Traveling the Globe Through the Neighborhoods in New New York by Joseph Berger
Fifty years ago, New York City had only a handful of ethnic groups. Today, the whole world can be found within the city’s five boroughs–and celebrated New York Times reporter Joseph Berger sets out to discover it, bringing alive the sights, smells, tastes, and people of the globe while taking readers on an intimate tour of the world’s most cosmopolitan city.   For urban enthusiasts and armchair explorers alike, The World in a City is a look at today’s polyglot and polychrome, cosmopolitan and culturally rich New York and the lessons it holds for the rest of the United States as immigration changes the face of the nation. With three out of five of the city’s residents either foreign-born or second-generation Americans, New York has become more than ever a collection of villages–virtually self-reliant hamlets, each exquisitely textured by its particular ethnicities, history, and politics. For the price of a subway ride, you can visit Ghana, the Philippines, Ecuador, Uzbekistan, and Bangladesh.   As Berger shows us in this absorbing and enlightening tour, New York is an endlessly fascinating crossroads. Naturally, tears exist in this colorful social fabric: the controversy over Korean-language shop signs in tony Douglaston, Queens; the uneasy proximity of traditional cottages and new McMansions built by recently arrived Russian residents of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. Yet in spite of the tensions among neighbors, what Berger has found most miraculous about New York is how the city and its more than eight million denizens can adapt to–and even embrace–change like no other place on earth, from the former pushcart knish vendor on the Lower East Side who now caters to his customers via the Internet, to the recent émigrés from former Soviet republics to Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach and Midwood whose arrival saved New York’s furrier trade from certain extinction.

 

8. The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead
In a dazzlingly original work of nonfiction, the award-winning novelist Colson Whitehead re-creates the exuberance, the chaos, the promise, and the heartbreak of New York. Here is a literary love song that will entrance anyone who has lived in—or spent time—in the greatest of American cities.  A masterful evocation of the city that never sleeps, The Colossus of New York captures the city’s inner and outer landscapes in a series of vignettes, meditations, and personal memories. Colson Whitehead conveys with almost uncanny immediacy the feelings and thoughts of longtime residents and of newcomers who dream of making it their home; of those who have conquered its challenges; and of those who struggle against its cruelties.   Whitehead’s style is as multilayered and multifarious as New York itself: Switching from third person, to first person, to second person, he weaves individual voices into a jazzy musical composition that perfectly reflects the way we experience the city. There is a funny, knowing riff on what it feels like to arrive in New York for the first time; a lyrical meditation on how the city is transformed by an unexpected rain shower; and a wry look at the ferocious battle that is commuting. The plaintive notes of the lonely and dispossessed resound in one passage, while another captures those magical moments when the city seems to be talking directly to you, inviting you to become one with its rhythms.   The Colossus of New York is a remarkable portrait of life in the big city. Ambitious in scope, gemlike in its details, it is at once an unparalleled tribute to New York and the ideal introduction to one of the most exciting writers working today.

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A Wishlist from The Strand

The Strand Bookstore in New York City is my favourite bookshop in the world.  I have only visited once, but I am hoping to be able to go again in no more than a few years time.  I am very lucky to be heading off to the States next month, but will be visiting Florida, so no trips up to Manhattan for me.  I’m just hoping that there’s a similar treasure trove somewhere in Miami!  Regardless, The Strand has a wonderful website, from which I have compiled a wishlist of wonderful looking books.

Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating by Charles Spence 9780241270080
‘Why do we consume 35% more food when eating with one more person, and 75% more when with three? Why are 27% of drinks bought on aeroplanes tomato juice? How are chefs and companies planning to transform our dining experiences, and what can we learn from their cutting-edge insights to make memorable meals at home? These are just some of the ingredients of Gastrophysics, in which the pioneering Oxford professor Charles Spence shows how our senses link up in the most extraordinary ways, and reveals the importance of all the “off-the-plate” elements of a meal: the weight of cutlery, the colour of the plate (his lab showed that red is associated with sweetness – we perceive salty popcorn as tasting sweet when served in a red bowl), the background music and much more. Whether dining alone or at a dinner party, on a plane or in front of the TV, he reveals how to understand what we’re tasting and influence what others experience. Meal-times will genuinely never be the same again.’

 

9780141981772Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
‘Claudia Rankine’s bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seeming slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV—everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society.’

 

Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems by Tom Hennen 9781556594045-1-zoom
‘In his introduction, Jim Harrison tellingly likens Hennen’s work to that of former poet laureate Ted Kooser. Hennen writes simply and affectingly of rural life in the heartlands, where “Night doesn’t fall/ It rises out of low spots.” He’s been publishing since 1974 but is receiving national distribution only now; many readers will appreciate this evocation of a life not as commonly portrayed in contemporary verse.’

 

0142004952-1-zoomHow I Became Stupid by Martin Page
‘Antoine is too smart for his own good-or so he thinks. He spends his days considering life rather than actually living it. He sees other people who seem perfectly happy in their ignorance, and he wants to be one of them. To achieve this end, Antoine decides that he needs to become stupid and tries various methods without success. Then his doctor prescribes Happyzac, which changes Antoine’s life. He really does “get stupid,” accidentally earns millions, indulges himself, and generally enjoys being one of the masses. Then, with his company’s collapse, the bubble bursts. Antoine returns to an intelligent life when he meets a like-minded girl in the park. Page’s first novel deftly combines biting satire and hilarious slapstick. His characters are highly introspective misfits, and the story makes for insightful commentary on life in the “developed” world.’

 

The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke 1594485666-1-zoom
‘Much like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay (2008), O’Rourke makes fine use of a strong voice and hyperawareness to recount a terribly painful tale. The author spares the reader no detail, revealing the deconstruction of a human being in the simplest terms imaginable. “I was stunned by the way my mother’s body was being taken to pieces,” she writes, “how each new week brought a new failure, how surreal the disintegration of a body was.” While there is no dearth of grief memoirs, O’Rourke’s candor allows her work to far transcend the imitators. She is fully conscious of the trappings of her genre, often admitting, “I know this may sound melodramatic,” and remaining wholly dedicated to combating the convenience of cliche, even acknowledging when she uses it. While the death of O’Rourke’s mother takes place midway through the book, her presence lingers. The author provides many seemingly insignificant details that provide a much-needed humanizing effect, sparing the victim from functioning as little more than a stand-in for her illness. Equally successful is O’Rourke’s ability to navigate beyond the realm of sentimentality, much preferring to render the drama with firm-lipped frankness.’

 

0822963310-1-zoomCatalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. That is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.’

 

Letters, Summer 1926 by Boris PasternakMarina Tsvetaeva and Rainer Maria Rilke 9780940322714
‘The summer of 1926 was a time of trouble and uncertainty for each of the poets whose letters appear here. Boris Pasternak was in Moscow, trying to come to terms with the new Bolshevik regime. Marina Tsvetayeva, exiled from the Soviet Union to France with her husband and two children, was struggling desperately to get by. Rainer Maria Rilke, in Switzerland, was dying. Chance put them in touch with one another, and before long they found themselves engaged in a complicated correspondence in which questions of art and love were ever more deeply implicated, and where every aspect of life and work was discussed with passionate intensity.’

Have you read any of these?  Have any piqued your interest?  Which is your favourite worldwide bookshop?

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Mini Reviews: ‘Little Deaths’ and ‘The Memory Book’

Little Deaths by Emma Flint ***
9781509826575‘It’s the summer of 1965, and the streets of Queens, New York shimmer in a heatwave. One July morning, Ruth Malone wakes to find a bedroom window wide open and her two young children missing. After a desperate search, the police make a horrifying discovery. Noting Ruth’s perfectly made-up face and provocative clothing, the empty liquor bottles and love letters that litter her apartment, the detectives leap to convenient conclusions, fuelled by neighbourhood gossip and speculation. Sent to cover the case on his first major assignment, tabloid reporter Pete Wonicke at first can’t help but do the same. But the longer he spends watching Ruth, the more he learns about the darker workings of the police and the press. Soon, Pete begins to doubt everything he thought he knew. Ruth Malone is enthralling, challenging and secretive – is she really capable of murder? Haunting, intoxicating and heart-poundingly suspenseful, Little Deaths is a gripping novel about love, morality and obsession, exploring the capacity for good and evil within us all.’

The premise of Emma Flint’s Little Deaths intrigued me.  At first, her prose, with its element of mixed chronology, felt clever, and really helped to set the scene.  After a while however, the prose began to repeat itself at points, and there was an entire middle section which I found frankly rather dull and drawn out.  The period in which it was set – the mid-1960s in New York – was not very well evoked on the whole.  The background itself faded into the background at times, and the story was not well-grounded in Flint’s chosen period.  The novel did not feel quite consistent, but as is often the case with a murder mystery or thriller, one really has to get to the end to see who the crime was committed by.  In this instance, I guessed the perpetrator incredibly early on, so the whole held no real surprises for me.  Little Deaths is a book which I feel had far more potential than was utilised.

 

The Memory Book by Lara Avery **** 9781784299248
‘Samantha McCoy has it all mapped out. First she’s going to win the national debating championship, then she’s going to move to New York and become a human rights lawyer. But when Sam discovers that a rare disease is going to take away her memory, the future she’d planned so perfectly is derailed before its started. Realising that her life won’t wait to be lived, Sam sets out on a summer of firsts. The first party. The first rebellion. The first friendship. The last love.’

I don’t tend to read YA fiction, but as I am eternally fascinated by memory, the plot of The Memory Book certainly intrigued me.  The narrator, Sammie, is intelligent, which definitely helped to keep my interest as I was reading.  Neither she, nor her condition, are predictable in the least.  Avery’s novel is well structured and effective in its use of multiple voices; it tackles some important issues, and I will be highly recommending it.

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The Gregory Peck-a-Long: ‘The Beautiful and Damned’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald **** (Classics Club #55)

Book number 55 on my Classics Club list is another by the wonderful F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned.  It slotted in with my reading plans with the lovely Belinda, and is thus part of this week’s Gregory Peck-a-long spectacular.

The heir to his grandfather’s relatively large fortune, protagonist Anthony Patch is ‘led astray from the path to gainful employment by the temptations of the 1920s Jazz Age.  His descent into dissolution and profligacy is accelerated by his marriage to the attractive but turbulent Gloria, and the couple soon discover the dangerous flip side of a life of glamour and debauchery’.  The gorgeous Alma Classics edition which I read heralds The Beautiful and Damned ‘a tragic examination of the pitfalls of greed and materialism and the transience of youth and beauty’.

The novel, Fitzgerald’s second, was published in 1922, and is split into three separate books.  It takes place in New York City, and paints rather a ‘satirical portrait of the Jazz Age’.  As with much of his fiction, The Beautiful and Damned contains parallels to the fascinating and rather heartbreaking lives of F. Scott and his wife, Zelda.  It is possible to see certain characteristics of Fitzgerald himself in his initial description of Anthony, for instance: ‘As you first see him he wonders frequently whether he is not without honour and slightly mad, a shameful and obscene thinness glistening on the surface of the world like oil on a clean pond, these occasions being varied, of course, with those in which he thinks himself rather an exceptional young man, thoroughly sophisticated, well adjusted to his environment and somewhat more significant than anyone else he knows’.

The writing is beautiful, as one might expect, and those sentences and paragraphs which focus upon the young couple are sublime.  One could easily imagine scenes such as the following featuring F. Scott and Zelda: ‘They were stars on this stage, each playing to an audience of two: the passion of their pretence created the actuality.  Here, finally, was the quintessence of self-expression – yet it was probable that for the most part their love expressed Gloria rather than Anthony.  He often felt like a scarcely tolerated guest at a party she was giving’.

The Beautiful and Damned does feel quite different to some of Fitzgerald’s later work, but it is possible – and rather enjoyable, too – to view the progression from one work to the next, and also to pinpoint those aspects of his writing which he bettered over time.  Whilst the prose itself is stylish, it does not always have the feel to it of a Fitzgerald novel, and perhaps lacks a little of the sparkle which I have come to expect from his stories.  There is something a little less tight about its feel than in his later novels, but it is certainly worth reading, and is a most enjoyable novel nonetheless.

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Classics Club #21: ‘A View from the Bridge’ by Arthur Miller ****

I received the gorgeous little Penguin edition of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge for my birthday.  Despite only having read two of his plays to date (rather predictably Death of a Salesman and The Crucible), I count Miller amongst my list of favourite playwrights.  The foreword in this volume was penned by the wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman, and an introduction written by Miller himself has also been included.  Of A View from the Bridge, Nicholas Hynter, director of the Royal National Theatre, says: ‘[it] will always stand with the masterpieces of Ibsen, Shakespeare and Sophocles’.

Written in 1955, the play, which was based upon a tale Miller was once told, tells of Italian Eddie Carbone, and is a ‘tragic masterpiece of the inexorable unravelling of a man’.  Miller speaks the way in which A View from the Bridge was ‘generally regarded as rather cold’ at first, and failed to find a large audience upon its initial Broadway run.  The version of the play which is currently in print has been revised by its author, who writes, ‘I was tired of mere sympathy in the theater.  The spectacle of still another misunderstood victim left me impatient…  I wanted to write in a way that would call up the faculties of knowing as well as feeling’.

In his foreword, Hoffman writes engagingly of Miller’s work: ‘Here we find the true compassion and catharsis that are as essential to our society as water and fire and babies and air…  Miller awakened in me the taste for all that must be – the empathy and love for the least of us, out of which bursts a gratitude for the poetry of these characters and the greatness of their creator’.

In A View from the Bridge, immigrant Eddie Carbone is living in a tattered Brooklyn tenement in a rundown neighbourhood with his wife, Beatrice, and niece, Catherine.  In and around this location is where all of the action takes place.  Eddie is a longshoreman, ‘working the docks from Brooklyn Bridge to the breakwater where the open sea begins’.  Beatrice is thrilled when her Italian cousins make it off the boat in New York; Eddie less so.  Miller has captured Beatrice’s reaction perfectly: ‘I’m – I just – I can’t believe it!  I didn’t even buy a new tablecloth; I was gonna wash the walls -‘.  A nice subplot regarding Catherine’s intention to leave school early and take up a position as a stenographer has also been inwoven.  The play opens with a long monologue spoken by Alfieri, a lawyer.  He talks directly to the audience, giving the context of the scene which he is both a part of and separate from.  Alfieri is essentially used in place of a Greek chorus; he serves much the same function.

I very much admired the way in which Miller simply yet thoroughly set his scenes; his stage directions are precise, and immediately begin to build realistic pictures in the reader’s mind.  As with Death of a Salesman, the very notion of the American Dream and its failures are brought to prominence.  Thematically, A View from the Bridge is fascinating.  The dialogue between the more minor characters does tend to be a little repetitive at times, but the entire play is so measured and precise.

Miller’s main aim in translating the original story to the stage, and the way in which he interpreted the action, were for the following purpose: ‘by knowing more than the hero, the audience would rather automatically see his [Eddie Carbone’s] life through conceptualized feelings’.  Of his revision, he rather insightfully states that ‘Eddie is still not a man to weep over; the play does not attempt to swamp our audience in tears.  But it is more possible now to relate his actions to our own and thus to understand ourselves a little better not only as isolated psychological entities, but as we connect to our fellows and our long past together’.  For all of these reasons, and arguably for many more, A View from the Bridge is an incredibly powerful play, which I would highly recommend.

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The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘A Spy in the House of Love’ by Anais Nin **

During June, an accidental library haul occurred.  A Spy in the House of Love, first published in 1954, was one of the books which I could not resist taking home with me, loving Nin’s work as I do.  Sadly, upon reflection, I should have left it behind.

I chose A Spy in the House of Love for mine and Yamini’s 50 Women Challenge, it being the only book of Nin’s upon the library shelves which I hadn’t yet read.  The novella – for the whole is comprised of under 130 pages – tells of Sabina, a woman who ‘leads a double life inspired by her relentless desire for brief encounters with near-strangers.  Fired into faithlessness by a desperate longing for sexual fulfilment, she weaves a sensual web of deceit across New York.  But when the secrecy of her affairs becomes too much to bear, Sabina makes a late night phone-call to a stranger from a bar, and begins a confession that captivates the unknown man and soon inspires him to seek her out…’.  I was rather intrigued by the premise, and have been impressed in the past by the way in which Nin handles more adult themes within her fiction.

The opening line of A Spy in the House of Love certainly sets an interesting tone for what follows: ‘The lie detector was asleep when he heard the telephone ringing’.  My favourite element of the novella, without a doubt, is the striking descriptive power which Nin wields, ranging from ‘a lax, spangled, spiralling laughter’, to her depiction of Sabina: ‘dressed in red and silver, she endured the sounds and imagery of fire engines as they tore through the streets of New York, alarming the heart with the violent gong of catastrophe’.

Sadly, I cannot say that I at all enjoyed A Spy in the House of Love.  It is the most sexually explicit of Nin’s work which I have encountered to date, and whilst I do not mind that per se, I did question the point of it here at times.  It seemed to be eroticism for eroticism’s sake (if there is such a thing!), and did not add a great deal to the story.

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American Literature Month: ‘The Group’ by Mary McCarthy **** (Classics Club #75)

When selecting my Classics Club books, I decided to try and include as many as I could from the Virago Modern Classics list which I am also working my way (albeit very slowly) through.  Mary McCarthy’s The Group ticks both boxes, and was also a great choice for American Literature Month.  Sarah Waters deems The Group ‘a brilliant novel’, and Hilary Mantel considers it ‘a masterpiece’ – high praise indeed from two of the most popular contemporary novelists Britain can boast.

The Group follows eight female graduates from Vassar College ‘as they find love and heartbreak, and choose careers and husbands against the backdrop of 1930s New York’.  Even if it had not been on the Virago list, it would still entirely appeal to me; I was absolutely fascinated by its premise when I began, and was eager to learn about McCarthy’s enduring and highly memorable cast of characters.

The novel was published in 1963.  Candace Bushnell, who has penned the informative and enthusiastic introduction, says that ‘it arrived smack in the middle of a major upheaval in American society.  John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated, the hippies were preaching free love, and the country was four years into the Vietnam War’.  She goes on to say that, ‘The Group reminds us that not much has really changed.  Sex before marriage, lousy men, career versus family – they’re all here…  Given the attention paid to relations between the sexes, it would be tempting to call The Group a forerunner of today’s chick lit.  It’s not.  Although McCarthy’s women struggle with finding “good” men, this is merely window-dressing for a larger conflict.  As Vassar graduates, the women of The Group believe they will change the world.  What they discover is that not only can they not change the world, but their survival still depends on their acceptance of being the second sex’.  Upon its publication, a swathe of women greatly identified with its contents, and it thus enjoyed a firm place upon the New York Times‘ bestseller list for two years.

With The Group, McCarthy wanted to write a ‘serious’ novel; she was a ‘feminist and highly political person’, and this certainly comes across in the cast of characters which she has created.  Bushnell states that: ‘every one of her characters is flawed.  At times they are ambitious, confused, indifferent, terrified, arrogant and catty…  McCarthy doesn’t edit her characters’ personalities to please her readers.  Nor does she stoop to “redeem” her characters; rather she lets her characters’ lives play out to logical and realistic conclusions’.

The novel begins with the marriage of Kay Leiland Strong and Harald Petersen, which occurs in June 1933.  This is a wonderfully simple yet effective background against which to introduce all of the novel’s protagonists at once.  McCarthy deftly captures the initial wedding scene: ‘Paying the driver, smoothing out their gloves, the pairs and trios of young women, Kay’s classmates, stared about them curiously, as though they were in a foreign city.  They were in the throes of discovering New York, imagine it, when some of them had actually lived here all their lives, in tiresome Georgian houses full of waste space in the Eighties or Park Avenue apartment buildings, and they delighted in such out-of-the-way corners as this, with its greenery and Quaker meeting house in red brick’.  Such interesting protagonists manifest – Mary Prothero, known as ‘Pokey’, for instance: ‘She, herself, she proclaimed, hated being fitted for dresses, hated her coming-out party, would hate her wedding, when she had it, which, as she said, was bound to happen since, thanks to Daddy’s money, she had her pick of beaux’.  Her description of Priss Hartshorn, another member of the group, struck me immediately: ‘[she was a] solemn, ashy-haired little girl who looked like a gopher and who felt it her duty to absorb every bit of word-of-mouth information that pertained to consumer problems’.

Socially, too, The Group is fascinating: ‘And elsewhere in the class, in the wider circle of Kay’s friends, they could point out girls of perfectly good background who were going into business, anthropology, medicine, not because they had to, but because they knew they had something to contribute to our emergent America’.  McCarthy demonstrates the changing face of the 1930s – contraception, for instance: ‘The lower classes, for instance, almost never transferred the burden of contraception to the woman; this was a discovery of the middle class’.  Her political and social backgrounds have been well built, and the story is both thoroughly and believably situated.

The fissures within the group creep to the surface rather early on.  McCarthy has wonderfully depicted the smoke and mirrors which exist within such a large group of friends, and this is used to full – and often sad – effect.  Different characters are followed at difficult or pivotal moments in their lives, and each chapter serves as a portrait of sorts to explore one or two of the different women in detail.  The ways in which the separate stories interlink and the characters cross paths is very clever indeed.  McCarthy is an understanding and perceptive author, who has crafted a novel with a wonderful structure and a believable and satisfying ending.  The Group is an incredibly well written and emotionally taut novel, which is easy to get into and most difficult to put down.

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