Breeds of New Yorker

Christine Smallwood

  • A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff
    Scribner, 399 pp, $26.00, April 2009, ISBN 978 1 4165 9077 4
  • The Group by Mary McCarthy
    Virago, 448 pp, £7.99, December 2009, ISBN 978 1 84408 593 4

In novels, a marriage is not only the place where comedy ends: it is also the place where tragedy begins. The wedding of Lil Roth, the opening act of Joanna Smith Rakoff’s A Fortunate Age, is followed by a lame attempt at spousal murder-by-scissors, a brief stay in a Manhattan mental institution, and Lil’s freak death after a bad case of flu. Lil hadn’t even planned to get married. At her college-sponsored commencement brunch she’d told her parents of her opposition to the ‘outmoded institution’. Her stand was dismissed by the company as naivety and, Moët clouding her mind and dribbling down her dress, she couldn’t think of an impressive intellectual backer, settling for the support of ‘any modern thinker’.

Lil’s fate is somewhat unexpected for a highly educated American woman of the late 20th century. She is persuaded to check herself into the mental hospital for ‘a rest’ – the sort of event that we associate with the mid-century. Presumably some kind of emotional or psychological apparatus could be used to explain the situation, but such workings are absent here. The logic is, rather, extratextual. Lil’s story, and everything else in A Fortunate Age, follows a template: the novel is a rewriting of Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963), which charted the lives of eight members of the Vassar class of 1933 in the years after graduation.

More than a decade before she wrote The Group, McCarthy published an essay in Holiday magazine called ‘The Vassar Girl’, reflecting on the way women’s lives had changed since her student days in the 1930s. McCarthy and those like her had been inspired by female academics: women so committed to a life of teaching that they made the heroic effort to live alone, without male companionship, in ugly faculty apartments; who answered every question with a question, forcing the girls to establish their own intellectual values, and to idolise unorthodoxy. And yet, as she drily reported, such training in unconventionality had yielded an average alumna who had ‘two-plus children and was married to a Republican lawyer’.

This dreary fate was shocking because, after all, these weren’t Wellesley or Smith girls choosing a life of diapers and martinis. These were Vassar girls. And ‘the essence of Vassar,’ McCarthy insisted, ‘is mythic. Today, despite much competition, it still figures in the public mind as the archetypal women’s college … For different people, in fact, at different periods, Vassar can stand for whatever is felt to be wrong with the modern female: humanism, atheism, Communism, short skirts, cigarettes, psychiatry, votes for women, free love, intellectualism.’ When Priss is torn between breast and bottle feeding; when Kay winds up in the Payne Whitney clinic; when Dottie submits to the humiliation of buying a diaphragm only to throw it in a trash bin in Washington Square Park; when Polly’s married lover wiles away the afternoons in psychoanalysis – at all these moments, McCarthy is delineating a recognisably new way of living. It is strange, then, that Rakoff has attempted to define a generation (or ‘microgeneration’, as it’s known today) by backdating the situations in which her characters find themselves.

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