In 1963, Mary McCarthy published her classic novel The Group, following the lives and aspirations of a group of Vassar grads. In the past few months, two novels have come out updating McCarthy’s formula: Joanna Smith Rakoff’s A Fortunate Age, which came out in April, and Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan, published this month.
In a blurb for Commencement, Gloria Steinem writes, “Take Mary McCarthy’s The Group, add a new feminist generation… and you get this generous-hearted, brave first novel.”
The Group, which was a bestseller and eventually adapted into a movie, chronicles eight women from the class of ’33 until 1940: There’s Kay, whose wedding a month after graduation opens the book, and Pokey, Lakey, Helena, Dottie, Polly, Libby, and Priss. They fall in and out of love, deal with births and deaths, and worry about becoming just like their parents.
It’s a neat framework for a novel, and one the two authors borrow from heavily. Both groups, as in The Group, begin with a wedding, end in a tragedy, and are filled with pregnancies, sexual experimentation, and betrayals, which are used as a way to examine class, gender, and growing up in America. Neither author shies away from comparisons: Rakoff gives McCarthy a florid shout-out in her acknowledgements (“whose marvelous novel, The Group, my own is, of course, an homage”) and in a blurb for Commencement, Gloria Steinem writes, “Take Mary McCarthy’s The Group, add a new feminist generation…and you get this generous-hearted, brave first novel.”
A Fortunate Age tells the story of a coed group of six Oberlin grads—Lil, Sadie, Emily, Beth, Dave, and Tal—from the late ’90s to 2004. They were “the superstudents,” Rakoff writes, of leafy suburbs like Scarsdale, Brookline, and Sherman Oaks (the characters are so uniformly upper middle class that the poorest one’s father is a doctor). As urban transplants, they mostly work in creative jobs and are assigned a laundry list of upper middlebrow interests: reading Flaubert, seeing Lucian Freud at the Met, attending Ionesco plays and Woody Allen festivals at Film Forum, joking about Lacan and Derrida.
Rakoff certainly gets the dot-com era references right: Her characters live in Williamsburg, eat at Planet Thai. But the city—and their lives—feels slightly off; no one is gay or even has gay friends, not one of these children of the ’80s has divorced parents, and women in the book have a habit of being rescued from loneliness and financial ruin by men who are upstanding and rich. The New York of McCarthy’s group manages to feel more modern, in comparison.
Sullivan, who rightly gives herself more room to stray from the original plot of The Group than Rakoff, writes about the Smith undergrad experience as a place both blissfully (sisterhood is powerful!) and annoyingly (no guys to make out with!) free of men. It’s a place where female friendships, portrayed as equally exhilarating and overwhelming, are central. There are men in Commencement, too, but they function mostly as plot devices for the four plucky Smith grads—Sally, Bree, Celia, and April—to react to. There’s the blandly supportive Jake, whom Sally marries, and the nameless one-night stand that Celia finds in her bed the morning of Sally’s wedding (a clichéd plot device, and one that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the story, pulled straight from the Carrie Bradshaw playbook).
Although the novel is set in the present decade, the women of Commencement have very little in the way of online lives; there is mention of the occasional email, but they’re not posting to each other’s Facebook walls or following one another on Twitter, neither of which works as a substitute for seeing friends in person but certainly supplements many modern long-distance friendships.
It is also worth noting how few friendships the characters in both books have outside of each other. This makes The Group seem less of a narrative framework and more like a fantasy, where, at an impressionable age, you meet not one but a whole set of soulmates whose love and support outlasts anyone and anything else.
Group books seem to have become the benchmark for young, female writers to comment on their own generations. The question of how people become adults outside the rigid social codes of campus life is certainly an interesting one to explore with each generation. Rakoff writes, “Lately, they were starting to look upon their parents’ houses, the green of their lawns, the comfortable lives of their youth, with a bit more kindness.”
These are complicated situations, so it’s too bad that both authors make every option available in adulthood—the extremes of either giving up your dreams to have a family or losing yourself in a job—seem defeatist and uninventive.
They’re certainly not satires; in fact, both Rakoff and Sullivan suffer from being overly fond of their characters. Reading their stories begins to feel like spending time with someone else’s children, whose every utterance isn’t adorable, just irritating.
Rakoff comes off a little too pleased by her characters’ cleverness: “Lil understood now why jewels were once considered amulets, investing their wearers with supernatural powers. With the large diamond glinting on her left hand, she felt herself to be a new and different Lil, one capable of doing anything, going anywhere. At night, she and Tuck drank brandy out of tumblers and talked about writing novels and making documentaries and moving to Romania.”
Sullivan veers on the saccharine side; a tender description of her heroines made me groan audibly: “Soon she would see them again—Sally, impeccable and impulsive, a 25-year-old millionaire in a thrift-store wedding gown; April, brave and opinionate, with that sometimes-reckless air that worried them all; and Bree, beautiful and bright eyed and mired in a doomed love affair—she was still Celia’s favorite, despite all the changes and distance between them.”
Claire Messud, whose 2006 novel The Emperor’s Children is about Brown graduates living in New York and has shades of The Group, seems less emotionally invested in her characters as good people, and, ultimately, her book is far more effective for it.
Norman Mailer wrote that The Group is “enormously successful as sociology. It will continue to exist as a classic in sociology long after it is dim and dull as a novel, it will survive in Soc Sci I at every university and junior college: the specific details are to be mined by the next 25 classes of Ph.D.” While McCarthy’s book remains a classic for its social history, neither Commencement nor A Fortunate Age has enough to say, sociologically, to be necessary for future generations. In this case, The Group will surely outlive its imitators.
Marisa Meltzer is coauthor of How Sassy Changed My Life. Her next book, Girl Power, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February.