Lara Feigel is a writer, critic and cultural historian teaching in the English department at King’s College London and is the author non-fiction books including The Love-Charm of Bombs, The Bitter Taste of Victory and Free Woman. The Group is her first attempt at writing fiction. Given Feigel’s background it makes perfect sense that she used a ground-breaking and controversial novel as inspiration. Mary McCarthy’s The Group was published in 1963 and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two years and described the lives of four colleague graduates in 1933.
Knowing this, I wish I could have read the original before I attempted to read Feigel’s version. Maybe I would have a better understanding of what she tried to portray. According to Wikipedia Mary McCarthy’s version is described as follows:
“Each character struggles with different issues, including sexism in the work place, child-rearing, financial difficulties, family crises, and sexual relationships. Nearly all the women’s issues involve the men in their lives: fathers, employers, lovers, or husbands. As highly educated women from affluent backgrounds, they must strive for autonomy and independence in a time when a woman’s role is still largely restricted to marriage and childbirth.”
Almost sixty years later, Feigel’s novel addresses the same issues. The most unsettling observation about this is that little has changed. The primary focus of the latest version is the ability or lack of having a child. All these women’s lives revolve around their children despite the fact that they are educated and seemingly liberal if the amount of affairs and sex they’re having is anything to go by. Kay regrets having children and struggles raising her two with little assistance from her husband, Harald; Stella is sharing responsibilities with her ex-husband and Priss is frustrated by her predictable home-life. Polly, a gynaecologist feels the growing need to have children, but no-one to father them with and Helena decides to have a child with her gay friend and colleague. Add to the mix each woman’s relationship with the men in their lives and you have an extensive, detailed and drawn-out depiction of a group of friends’ lives in our current time.
“She has no life. It has all been taken away from her by him, in his insistent need for these children that she never actively wanted.”
But here’s the thing – you would expect to will identify with these women. The issues being addressed are universal, whether it’s sex, child-rearing responsibilities of relationships. Instead The Group leaves you cold. It’s practically impossible to feel sympathy for any of them. This is partly due to their selfish nature and to the style in which the book is narrated, cold and clinical. It reads like a report of every character’s life – their thoughts and actions rendered in detail to such an extent that it seems to go on forever without any momentum or potential climax or resolution. The lack of dialogue adds to this detachment.
The monotony and disconnection from the characters can be largely blamed on the narrative style. Stella acts as narrator, but the way in which she is the voice-over of her friends’ lives ultimately feels cruel and voyeuristic. It also means we never hear the voices of the other characters, just what Stella tells us they think or feel. The observational style could be effective for parts of a novel, but after a while it gets difficult to digest. This might be intentional, but it does not make for easy reading.
Current issues like #metoo and the immigrant crisis are mentioned, but it doesn’t integrate properly with the story and is merely mentioned in passing as an add-on instead as a thread running through. Even though Vince, Stella’s boss, and his sexual predatory actions are mentioned throughout, it doesn’t ring true.
In the end The Group tells a grim and unsettling story of a group of self-indulgent women who are frustrated by their life choices and even more critical of those of their friends. If you need a feel-good story about female relationships, this is not it – on the contrary, you will be left disillusioned. The group of women are solely bound by their history, nothing more and it shows.
The Group is published by Hachette and they kindly provided me with a review copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Lara Feigel’s first novel, The Group, is a fiercely intelligent, revealing novel about a group of female friends turning forty. Who has children and who doesn’t? Whose marriages are working, whose aren’t, and who has embarked on completely different models of sexuality and relationships? Who has managed to fulfil their promise, whose life has foundered and what do they think about it, either way?
The Group takes its cue from Mary McCarthy’s frank, absorbing novel about a group of female graduates. The relations between men and women may be different now but, in the age of Me Too, they’re equally fraught. This is an engrossing portrait of contemporary female life and friendship, and a thrillingly intimate and acute take on female character in an age that may or may not have been changed by feminism in its different strands.