The best-known section of Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel “The Group” involves a young woman from a good family and a contraceptive device. Dottie has just lost her virginity to Dick, a drunken artist she does not love, and who does not love her. She has spent the night trying to work out the etiquette of sex. How does one undress, what to say over breakfast, what is the polite way to have an orgasm?

Then, just as she’s leaving, Dick tells her she should get fitted for a diaphragm. Here’s another question of manners: does this mean he wants to see her again? Dottie’s friend Kay’s husband Harald confirms that the request indicates commitment. “No man of honor,” he explains, “would expect a girl to put up the doctor’s fee, plus the price of the pessary and the jelly and the douche bag, unless he planned to sleep with her long enough for her to recover her investment.”

So Dottie boldly goes to a woman doctor, one of the early campaigners for birth control. Dottie feels she is in the presence of a hero of female sexuality. “To hear her talk on the subject of her lifelong mission was an honor, like touching the mantle of a prophet.”

But in practice, the doctor’s visit is just as awkward and embarrassing as Dottie’s “defloration.” Dottie struggles to insert the contraceptive. “Though she was usually good with her hands and well co-ordinated, she felt suddenly unnerved by the scrutiny of the doctor and the nurse, so exploratory and impersonal, like the doctor’s rubber glove. As she was trying to fold the pessary, the slippery thing, all covered with jelly, jumped out of her grasp and shot across the room.” Eventually, embarrassed by the whole business and stood up by Dick, she abandons the package under a park bench and goes back to her mother in Boston.

Universal themes are clearly in evidence here: self-deceit, loss of innocence, class differences (poor women are the doctor’s “real” patients), heroism and disappointment. But in the “Mad Men” era, when “The Group” first came out, many readers were merely horrified. McCarthy was fifty, one of America’s most sophisticated essayists and critics. Her wit and sublime literary style had made her widely respected at a time when few women were admitted to the literary top. “The Group” was funny, true, but why on earth was McCarthy mucking around with the most vulgar aspects of female experience? Was this the best we could hope for from women’s literature?

Readers ate it up. “The Group” spent two years on the best-seller list. The same women who devoured “The Feminine Mystique” and “The Golden Notebook” in the early Sixties recognized themselves in McCarthy’s young, educated women struggling to understand how to live. But many of McCarthy’s intellectual friends found it embarrassing. “The Group” made her famous but nearly destroyed her career.

In more recent years, “The Group” has acquired a new life, influencing a new generation of frank writers on female sexuality. When Candace Bushnell wrote “Sex and the City,” her own manual of sexual etiquette, she took her inspiration from McCarthy. For the book’s recent reissue in the UK, by the feminist press Virago (it has never been out of print in the US), Bushnell wrote a new foreword. All the themes that matter to modern women, she said, McCarthy had anticipated. “Sex before marriage, lousy men, career versus family—they’re all here.”

The British reissue inspired a new Dutch translation as well, and it couldn’t come at a more interesting time. This bothersome, discomfiting, embarrassingly honest book is the work of fiction that, more than any other, engages the question the Dutch literary world keeps asking itself. What is the proper subject of women’s writing?

“The Group” begins in 1933 with a wedding and ends seven years later with a funeral. In between, it tells the story of eight young graduates of Vassar, an academically rigorous, idealistic women’s college. Women were admitted to university in America earlier than in the Netherlands—Vassar was founded in 1861—but for a long time the young women of the upper classes emerged from four years of study with no clear future ahead. The eight women McCarthy portrays, all based on her college friends (and to a large extent on McCarthy herself), enter into the world of careers and marriage idealistic, talented, and utterly unprepared for reality.

There’s Kay, who marries an alcoholic, skirt-chasing playwright she foolishly believes is a genius. There’s the would-be writer Libby, who like many young women fails at her first job by trying to do it too well. There’s Priss, who marries a famous pediatrician and becomes a guinea pig for his child-rearing theories. McCarthy looks at each woman in turn, mixing their stories and their troubles in an almost soap-operatic soup. Because the overall theme is confusion, the individual themes are many. Male impotence, female orgasm and domestic violence are all mixed up together with toilet training, breastfeeding, bad housekeeping, and hostess gifts.

One objection to “The Group” is that McCarthy is so tediously obsessed with the women’s possessions. The characters all think about clothes, worry about wedding presents, decorate apartments, wear furs. (The Virago cover shows a woman in a leopard-skin coat, a detail that’s been fastidiously removed from the Dutch cover.) When I first read the book in my twenties, I found these women with their upper-class, empty-headed materialism unbearable.

Yet if “The Group” is a domestic book, it’s also an exceedingly political one. Everyone in it is constantly reading Marx and discussing the Soviet Union or the problem of housing the poor. Characters are identified by their political views: the ingénue Polly first realizes that her boyfriend Gus is a bad egg when he disagrees with her about the Moscow Trials. (He supports Stalin’s purges, while Polly, like McCarthy, is a lonely Trotskyite.) One of McCarthy’s points in “The Group” is how vulnerable the women are. They have emerged from college utterly unprepared for the social changes to come: economic crisis, war, the postwar shift toward greater class equality, the emancipation of blacks. McCarthy’s friend Robert Lowell, who understood this side of “The Group,” commented that the college graduates of his generation had been “ignorant, dependable little machines made to mow the lawn, then suddenly turned out to clear the wilderness.”

Her novel can be read almost as a work of social realism, like Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”—only instead of describing the living conditions of migrant workers, McCarthy was describing what women had to cope with. To understand women’s literature, she seems to be saying, you have to understand the physical conditions of women’s lives. Only when you know why Kay hated Dottie’s wedding gift and Norine Schmittlapp decorated her living room with a moth-eaten polar bear rug have you established a common frame of reference, so that you can begin to comprehend what women want.

At the same time, she does for women what Roth and Updike did for men. “The Golden Notebook” and “The Feminine Mystique” may have revealed middle-class women’s intellectual discontents. But “The Group” opens up to literature the whole world of women’s sexuality. And if women’s most intimate experience is slipperier and less straightforward than men’s, concealed beneath a thin but perceptible layer of breast milk, baby shit, and slowly drying semen, then writers and readers will just have to take that into account.

“The Group” opens doors for women writers. Fifty years later, we still don’t know what’s behind all of them. McCarthy herself is too devastating in her insight—and too good a literary stylist—to descend into the reassuring familiarity of “chick lit.” But her preoccupation with clothes, houses, food and drink can lead through one door to the reassuring kitsch of “Sex and the City” or “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Chick lit is the literature of women’s new rights: work, premarital sex, and disposable income. But its self-mocking tone is generally more comforting than subversive. One explanation for the popularity of Sarah Palin is that she’s essentially a chick lit character: other women can identify with her second-rateness and her mistakes. Even McCarthy (who would have torn Palin to shreds) indulges a little too often in a love of female failure.

Another direction is to continue looking for drama within four walls. Lionel Shriver and Rachel Cusk (“Arlington Park”) examine the oppressive nature of family bonds. Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy” is a novel in which the politics of race play out at the most intimate level.

Another, and the one women are still working at, is to dream bigger dreams, to write in an ambitious style, to quit wallowing in comforting miseries of the domestic. It’s this set of possibilities that women writers haven’t yet explored to the full. If McCarthy can no longer be our guide here, at least she gives one useful bit of advice. While it may not work in life, in literature honesty will get you everywhere.

 Trouw, June 18, 2011.