The Group by Lara Feigel (and Mary McCarthy)

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.

My rating:


The Group was published by JM Originals (John Murray) on July 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

Readalikes: The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, and Expectation by Anna Hope.

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.

14 responses

  1. I read The Group just last year and loved it so am a bit wary of the new one. Still, your review is making me think I should give it a go!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I deliberately read the Feigel first because I was worried it might seem redundant otherwise. In comparison, I found the McCarthy dated. I don’t know what my experience would have been like had I read them the other way round. Reading them in close succession definitely didn’t work.

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      1. I might leave it a while and come back to it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. […] For another view you might like to visit Bookish Beck who has reviewed both the original and Feigel’s take on it here. […]

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  3. I think you enjoyed this one rather more than I did. I was quite pleased to wave goodbye to Stella and co by the end of it although I’m glad I read it. Thanks for the link. I’ve added one to yours on my blog. A nice balance!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Susan. I got very invested in the story and admired the style. (Who knows how I would have felt if I’d read the McCarthy first!)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s interesting to read your review after reading Susan’s. I got the impression from Susan that she would recommend McCarthy’s over Feigel’s, but it’s the other way around for you. Maybe it really does depend which one you read first!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That could well be. I think those who read this with the McCarthy in mind could be disappointed, whereas I was able to appreciate it for its own sake. It felt very much like a book for our times.

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  5. Hm, I didn’t fancy the Feigel but it looks like she took The Group as a pushing off point and didn’t labour the comparison. I found The Group dated, I think … Okaaaay I read it in 2007 and did one of my long and detailed reviews (not) https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2007/12/13/mary-macarthy-the-group/ but I did indeed find it dated and a bit stereotyped. This I think will be one of those books I’ll pick up if the pb appears in the charity shops – when I dare go in them (I think our two Oxfam Books will be OK to visit soon as long as I quarantine my purchases for a bit; I can’t go much long without scanning random shelves for lovelies!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Apart from the names and a few details (like Polly being in the medical field), I didn’t feel the comparison was belaboured at all. I was surprised by how sexually explicit the McCarthy was given its time setting (though of course it was published in the 1960s, and just served to remind us that people have always been having sex, and trying to avoid unwanted pregnancy!). If you think you’re interested, I’m happy to save my proof for you as John Murray also sent a finished copy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh that would be lovely, thank you! Yes please!

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  6. There’s a lovely bit at the end of Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar about how you can divide your life into the way it was before you read a book and the way it was after you read a book but, even after you’ve forgotten the book, you’re still living the life after the book. It seems like you’re stuck in a similar place; if only you could have read McCarthy’s book first, and, yet, it seemed like such a good idea to read it last, and now it cannot be un-read. Did you finish the McCarthy, or did it get shuttled into the DNF or Skimmed pile? Poor thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I skimmed the McCarthy, but may try it some other year/decade! I was pleased for Feigel’s sake that I experienced her novel blind and didn’t come with preconceptions.

      Liked by 1 person

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