Mary McCarthy’s Moment
Peter Tonguette’s review of Mary McCarthy: The Complete Fiction (July 10) argues that the novelist had large ambitions but “came up short every time.” Yet he never mentions two of her best, The Groves of Academe (1952) and A Charmed Life (1955), nor the flawed but haunting Birds of America (1971). He spends much of his review on her earliest efforts and apparently missed the point of her bestseller The Group (1963). He may be right that her novels are not much read nowadays, but that doesn’t mean they’re failures.
McCarthy was interested in American intellectual life as well as personal relationships. The details in The Group that irritate Mr. Tonguette are not superfluous: They are emblems of the era, which McCarthy is placing in amber. Most of the characters are upper-class women who have been educated to a different understanding of their privilege from that of their parents, but it is only slightly different. (Kay, the character most like the author, supports the striking workers but loves her Russel Wright aluminum cocktail shaker.) This is a major theme, and McCarthy is both sympathetic and mocking. Each chapter centers on a different woman, told from her point of view, except for the wealthiest of the bunch, who is shown through the eyes of the family butler. (Didn’t Mr. Tonguette see any humor there?)