Read: The Company She Keeps

The Company She KeepsThe Group may have made her fortune (and her name), but The Company She Keeps is what made Mary McCarthy’s literary reputation.

I first read it in a post-war American literature course during college. (That sounds more interesting than it was.) And I liked it! It was all about life in Manhattan in the 1930s and seemed very glamorous. And then, a decade later, it’s less glamorous and more punch-in-the-gut recognition.

There are stories about the illicit thrill of cheating on one’s husband and how it eventually becomes such a bore that you break things off with both your husband and your lover. And the heroine works a dead-end job at a disreputable auction house, lulled into complacency by the summer heat and the promise of a good story at the end of her tenure. There are stories about manipulative men who play the role of bon vivant host to keep loneliness at bay; self-aware women wasting time on the couches of shrinks because they know what they need to do but aren’t yet ready to do it; and the most famous story, “the Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit,” in which Margaret Sargent sleeps with an unattractive older man on a California-bound train during a trip to announce her new engagement to her family. She wakes up hungover and naked and wonders to herself if she can avoid the self-disgust that is sure to follow by turning the whole thing into farce. Whether I consciously or unconsciously imitated that attitude during my early years in New York I can no longer recall, but I do know I gasped aloud when I read it.

Margaret isn’t the most likable of heroines, but there’s something appealing about the way in which McCarthy has her fan out her faults like a street vendor, watching you examine them and wondering if you’ll understand or not. For the most part, you do.

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