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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Retro Reading

Just for the heck of it, I decided the other night to revert to one of my most favorite novels of my younger days: The Group by Mary McCarthy. First published in 1963 to international acclaim and a long run on the New York Times Bestseller list, this was McCarthy's 24th entry into the world of literature—having previously penned a number of novels, memoirs, and short stories. It was my first real "adult" read, secretly purchased in my mid-teens with baby-sitting monies.

I am not sure what happened to that first edition. But I do remember it being badly battered and worn—I was really hard on books back then—from constant re-readings out of sight of censoring parents—under the covers at night with a flashlight, disguised with a text-book cover when I was supposed to be studying, hidden in the laundry basket in back of my clothes closet under sweaty tennis togs. It in all probability, it fell apart and I had to sadly discard it, not to re-read again until my Modern American Literature course years later in college. By then, I had committed a few passages to memory and had seen the 1966 movie starting Joan Hacket and Candace Bergen at least four times. To say I like the story and the writing style in those days was, still is, an understatement.

In 1989, the same year she passed away, Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch published a commemorative hardcopy of McCarthy's most famous novel as part of HBJ Modern Classics series. It is that copy, acquired in a second-hand bookstore a number of years ago, that I am currently reading. It is inscribed "Rachel, Merry Christmas, 1994! Love, Michele". I can well imagine how much Michele enjoyed the thirty-year-old read well enough to give a reprint of it as a gift to her friend.

Eight members of the Vassar graduating class of 1933 formed a tightly knit group of women friends dedicated to improving their lives and the world around them. As each struggles her way into responsible adulthood during the pre-World War II depression-era, they are embroiled in the often sordid trappings of class discrimination, base morality, selfish gain, and self-aggrandizement. As if this isn't enough, the novel also ventures into the realms of mental illness, shallow altruism, and political differences that threaten to rend the group's close relationships asunder. In its hey-day it was touted as a  woman's literary romance novel. By today's standards, it is still a near masterpiece of feminist literary merit—not to mention being, simply, a literary classic unto itself. In my MAL course, we termed it a "social commentary", spending hours discussing the various intricacies of what that meant.

The movie, by the way, which I watched last night on NetFlix, only follows the simple plot line, concentrating on the more sensational aspects. While the dialogue does incorporate much of McCarthy's more salient, meaningful text, it really doesn't do the book any justice. Instead, even with a celebrity cast, it plays to the more prurient side of the viewer's nature. I had to really concentrate beyond this to garner the deeper, more meaningful social commentary that is so evident in the novel. But, then again, it was produced in a less sophisticated era of movie-making than what we have today. I wonder what Martin Scorsese or Penny Marshall would do with it now.

Be that as it may, I am finding The Group just as relevant a novel in today's modern future of the 1960s. Its messages and social commentary relate not only to the 1933 setting of the main protagonists, but also to that of the Vietnam era in which it was written, and, more importantly, to today's society. One, it seems, needs only to read a novel of the past to be reminded of the present.
4:26 pm edt          Comments

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June J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is an author, poet, and librettist. Her currently published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations, two volumes of poetry, stories for children (of all ages) and a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Miss Elmira's Secret Treasure: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
Colonial Theatre: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Roarin' 20s 
Phoenix Hose, Hook & Ladder: A Novel of Phoenixville during World War I
Columbia Hotel: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members

Adventures of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Spinach Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A Collection of More Spiritual Poems

We Three Kings

Beauty and the Beast


Noah's Rainbow

Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding Hood



Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She is currently working on her sixth novel.

June's novels can be purchased at amazon.com, through Barnes and Noble,
at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area,
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA

For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,