Lara Feigel’s memoir Free Woman was one of my favourite books of 2018. In it she interrogates conventions of marriage and motherhood while rereading the works of Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook (1962), in particular, dramatizes women’s struggles to combine their disparate roles into a harmonious identity. Drawing inspiration from Lessing as well as from another early feminist novel, The Group by Mary McCarthy (more on this below), Feigel’s debut novel crafts a kaleidoscopic portrait of five women’s lives in 2018.
Stella, Kay, Helena, Polly and Priss met at a picnic while studying at Oxbridge and decided to rent a house together. Now 40-ish, they live in London and remain close, though their lives have branched in slightly different directions. Kay is an English teacher but has always wanted to be a novelist like her American husband, Harald. Priss is a stay-at-home mother excited to be opening a café. Polly, a gynaecological consultant at St Thomas’s Hospital, is having an affair with a married colleague. Helena, a single documentary presenter, decides she wants to have a baby and pursues insemination via a gay friend.
Narrating her friends’ lives as well as her own is Stella, an editor at a Faber-like publishing house whose director (also Helena’s uncle) is under investigation for sexual misconduct. Stella, a stand-in for the author, has split from her husband and has a new baby via IVF as well as an older child; this hint of autofiction lends the book an intimacy it might have lacked with an omniscient perspective. Although you have to suspend disbelief in a few places – could Stella really know so many details of her friends’ lives? – it feels apt that she can only understand these other women in relation to herself. Her voice can be catty, but is always candid, and Feigel is astute on the performative aspects of femininity.
Fast-forward a Sally Rooney novel by about 20 years and you’ll have an idea of what to expect here. It is a sexually frank and socially engaged narrative that arose from the context of the #MeToo movement and fully acknowledges the privilege and limitations of its setting. The characters express guilt over lamenting middle-class problems while there is such suffering in the wider world – we glimpse this in Polly’s work with African girls who have undergone genital mutilation. The diversity is limited to Black boyfriends, Helena’s bisexuality, and the fact that one group member decides not to have children (that 1 in 5 is statistically accurate).
The advantage of the apparent heterogeneity in the friend group, though, is that it highlights depths of personality and subtleties of experience. Stella even sees herself as an amateur anthropologist:
So here we are then. Five exact contemporaries who once shared a cluttered, thin-walled student house off the Cowley Road, all privileged, white, middle-class, all vestigial hangers-on, left over from an era when we received free educations at our elite university and then emerged into a world where we could still just about find jobs and buy flats, provided with opportunities for selfishness and leisure by our cleaners and our childminders. Nothing very eventful happens to us, but that gives more room for the ethnographer in me to get to work.
Feigel previously wrote two group biographies of cultural figures of the Second World War era, and she applies that precise skill set – capturing the atmosphere of a time period; noting similarities but also clear distinctions between people – to great effect here. You’ll recognize aspects of yourself in all of the characters, and be reminded of how grateful you are for (or how much you wish you had) friends whom you know will always be there for you. It’s an absorbing and relevant novel that ranks among my few favourites of the year so far.
The Group was published by JM Originals (John Murray) on July 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
See Susan’s review also.
The Group by Mary McCarthy (1963)
As soon as I heard about Lara Feigel’s forthcoming novel, I unearthed the Mary McCarthy paperback I’d plucked from Bookbarn’s shelves in 2017. I decided to read Feigel’s first, lest it feel less than fresh; perhaps inevitably, McCarthy’s felt dated in comparison. I had trouble engaging with it as a whole, but still enjoyed contrasting the two books.
McCarthy focuses on eight girls from the Vassar class of ’33. Kay, the first to marry, has an upper-crust New York City wedding one week after graduation. But after Harald loses his theatre job, his cocktail habit and their luxury apartment soon deplete Kay’s Macy’s salary. Meanwhile, Dottie loses her virginity to Harald’s former neighbour in a surprisingly explicit scene. Contraception is complicated, but not without comic potential – as when Dottie confuses a pessary and a peccary. Career, romance, and motherhood are all fraught matters.
Feigel borrows the names of four of her five group members, plus those of some secondary characters, from McCarthy, with Stella a new character perhaps inspired in part by McCarthy’s Libby, who wants to work with books but, after delivering an earnest report on a 500-page pot-boiler, hears that “we really have no work that you’re uniquely qualified to do. You’re one of thousands of English majors who come pouring out of the colleges every June, stage-struck to go into publishing.” (That sure sounds familiar!)
Narrowing the circle and introducing a first-person narrator were wise choices that made Feigel’s version more accessible. Both, though, are characterized by forthright commentary and a shrewd understanding of human motivations. I’ll try again with McCarthy’s The Group someday, but for now I’m planning to pick up her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.
Note: Mary McCarthy is one of the authors profiled in Michelle Dean’s Sharp.