This 1963 novel by Mary McCarthy follows the lives of eight 1933 graduates of Vassar, as they pursue careers, relationships, and freedom to live their lives as they choose. Some of their experiences are pretty harrowing — one woman is involuntarily committed and another is nearly raped. And some have run-of-the-mill obstacles. One finds that she isn’t as good at her chosen career as she’d hoped, another falls for a married man who made it clear from the start he’s only after sex, and another struggles to live up to others’ expectations of her as a mother.
One of the best things about the book is that it shows how different kinds of trouble still feel like trouble to the person experiencing them. I felt awful for Libby when she couldn’t seem to figure out how to critique manuscripts to her employers’ satisfaction, even though her suffering pales in comparison to what her friend Kay went through as her marriage fell apart. McCarthy puts you right there with the characters in the moment, and what they feel feels altogether real and significant.
I also appreciated the variety of lives she depicts, even within this fairly privileged slice of 1930s womanhood. I think the novel’s scope is a reason the book has been so popular since its publication. There’s no sense that there’s a single way to be a woman, even at a time when gender roles were more constrained than they are now. They are so much more constrained! What these women were up against, despite their relative wealth and education, was tremendous. But a lot of what these women grapple with hasn’t gone away. Woman of all classes still have to deal with others’ expectations, the limitations of their own abilities, the unreliability of others, and the challenges of finding the money and time to accomplish everything you want to. Today, we are better off in so many ways, but there’s plenty here that’s familiar.
Still, the group’s privileged position keeps this from being a full account of 20th-century womanhood. Not all of these women are wealthy, but most do not have to struggle with money very much. And many of them come across as snobby, classist, and casually racist. Even there, though, it was interesting to see how their political convictions sometimes rubbed up against their attitudes about actual people from different circumstances than theirs. It seemed authentic to the time and easily transferrable to today.
And on top of all this, it’s just an absorbing read. I cared what happened to these women, even the ones who exasperated me. I hated that it was so difficult for them to get on their path and wanted all of them to figure things out and find a way through.