I read Mary McCarthy’s The Group many years ago as a teenager when it was already acclaimed as a classic. In it eight women who met as students in the ‘30s form the titular group whose intimate lives and friendship the novel follows. Not my generation at all, but I was spellbound by it and that structure is still one I find irresistible. Lara Feigel’s debut of the same name takes five women, each approaching forty, who also met at university and have remained friends, following their interlocking lives over nine months in an homage to the influential original. Quite audacious for a first novel.
Stella is meeting Helena, Kay and Polly at Priss’ house for tea, admiring the perfection of her friend’s taste while remembering that with no job, Priss has the time to accomplish such apparent domestic tranquillity. Stella is an editor, a job she secured through Helena’s Uncle Vince, the publishing director at the press where she works. Helena is a documentary presenter, successful enough to be recognised on the street, while Polly is a consultant gynaecologist and Kay teaches literature, despite her early writing showing much more promise that her husband’s bestsellers. Their friendship has lasted two decades, its dynamics subtly shifting to fit their changing circumstances. Stella is now a single mother, her second child conceived through IVF and not entirely wanted by her almost ex-husband; Priss also has two children as does Kay while Helena longs for a child and Polly is ambivalent. Over the nine months of the novel, several friendships will be stretched to the limits as betrayals are revealed and a life threatens to unravel, marriages are tested and new relationships formed, all of it examined and discussed by these women who sometimes wonder how much they know or even like each other each other but whose lives are irrevocably bound up together.
The shouts alternate Mummy and Daddy by way of instituting the gender equality they do not have
Rather puzzlingly, Feigel chooses to structure her book as the novel which Stella has finally decided to write, encouraged by her new partner. She’s the driver of the story, imagining and interpreting her friends’ behaviour as she follows each of their lives, exploring themes of gender division, motherhood, marriage, friendship and desire. Humming away in the background is the #MeToo issue with Vince’s sexual activities alleged to be not quite as consensual as the friends had believed. There’s a great deal of analysis – both of themselves and of each other – much discussion of the behaviour of men, most of whom are largely offstage, and lots of sex, echoing McCarthy’s 1963 classic regarded as scandalous at the time. At first, I found my patience stretched by these privileged women, so caught up in themselves and the minutiae of their own lives, but I began to find it quite addictive. Worth reading as a witty snapshot of a particular section of society that I was glad to put behind me once I’d finished the book.
For another view you might like to visit Bookish Beck who has reviewed both the original and Feigel’s take on it here.
John Murray: London 9781529305005 336 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)