As with McCarthy’s book, to the extent that there is a plot, it is psychological, about the way a particular group of women learn in mid-life to understand the world and their position in it. Unlike the original, however, this novel is constantly turning back on itself, aware and critical of the limitations of point of view and knowingly stuck with those limitations. There is no claim to universality, no sense that these women’s shared assumptions are the only or best ones available; rather, they precisely expose one of a multitude of specificities that can be playfully and painfully investigated in fiction.
The chapters alternate between the first person and the close third as Stella lays bare her inner world and that of the other women. Every so often she startles us with a reminder that she is both a character in the drama and its intrusive narrator: “There’s a ring on the doorbell … It’s me, her friend Stella”. The back and forth is unsettling, but the cumulative effect is to make us feel a part of something.
While Feigel articulates her characters’ fears with sensitivity, she also illustrates their lack of self-awareness and limits of experience with angry frustration that makes for a claustrophobic, often deeply uncomfortable and sometimes agonising picture — especially in the light of recent shifts in racial perspectives and calls to check white privilege. But this pain feels like truth. If this is the clearsightedness that Stella is searching for, does it feel like betrayal or love? I’m not sure that she, or indeed Feigel, is certain.
Feigel goes admirably deep into feminist social theory, carefully parsing the conflicting parts of the modern woman’s life (needing men while hating the patriarchy; loving children while resenting being their unpaid servant). But it’s not enough that a novel understands the world. The cold facts of life need to be kindled with clever plotting, artful imagery or — dare we ask for it and still be considered serious readers? — humour.
The Group works because there is nothing self-satisfied in its tone. It has the bitter aroma of Elena Ferrante’s fiction in its interest in female friendship and female anger. The influence of Virginia Woolf isn’t hard to detect either, in Feigel’s attentiveness to the moment-to-moment shift of impressions and the fragility of the self: where does one person end and another begin?
The mix of caustic insights and sudden tenderness make the group dynamics arrestingly real. I can’t remember the last time I consumed a novel so hungrily. Like Polly’s slap, it leaves a sting.