I love books, period, but chick lit has always been a genre I love to hate. I just can’t get my head around its depiction of what life as a woman is supposedly about. For me, being a woman has very little to do with finding The One, the perfect lipstick, or next season’s handbag (in no particular order). With more excellent fiction produced by female authors than I’ll ever be able to read in my lifetime, I’ll happily give any book that reeks of cotton candy and cosmopolitans a miss.
So how come I loved The Group by Mary McCarthy? This book was first published back in the 1960s, spent months topping the bestseller lists back then, and while it may not technically be chick lit, if it looks like a duck… The Group is about a group of well-to-do young women obsessed with finding The One, having babies, and impressing each other. It has no plot to speak of. There’s a lot of petty jealousy happening, plenty of crying going on, and the characters are way to obsessed with home furnishings for their own good. Yet I feel sad now I’ve finished it. Why?
Perhaps because The Group, while sharing some characteristics with chick lit, broke the mould before it was even fully formed. For starters, it’s funny. Even at its darkest moment, when one of the protagonists is sectioned by her up-to-no-good husband, the book made me laugh. McCarthy has a fine eye for awkwardness, misunderstandings, and the consequences of overenthusiastic relationships with straightforward assholes (a phenomenon I can most definitely relate to). Rather than forcing her readers to indulge in unhappiness she encourages them to have a laugh and move on.
The novel also offers a terrifying account of what life was like as a woman during the 1930s. Even for reasonably well-to-do ladies society had much to be fearful of. The narrative doesn’t shy away from birth control (or the lack thereof), masturbation (and the accompanying feelings of guilt), and childrearing (including the agony that is nursing an unwilling baby). Reading this right now, during a time when the right to decide what we do with our own bodies is increasingly violated, McCarthy’s book serves as a helpful reminder than we should remain vigilant and not take our hard-won freedoms for granted.
The preface to my edition is written by Candace Bushnell, who of course made her own mark on the chick lit genre during the 1990s, and who liberally admits her indebtedness to McCarthy. I can’t help thinking that The Group would make a great TV series along the lines of Sex and the City or Girls and would be much more interesting than the allegedly quite lacklustre film adaption (which I haven’t seen yet, I should admit, because I have books to read). Its meandering plot and large cast of characters would lend itself to at least one season of juicy drama. Who knows, it might even shake my beliefs and lure me away from the to-read pile that’s about to topple over next to my bed – albeit temporarily, of course.