Book Review: The Group – Lara Feigel

The Group by Lara Feigel

I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

About The Book

Lara Feigel’s first novel, The Group, is a fiercely intelligent, revealing novel about a group of female friends turning forty. Who has children and who doesn’t? Whose marriages are working, whose aren’t, and who has embarked on completely different models of sexuality and relationships? Who has managed to fulfil their promise, whose life has foundered and what do they think about it, either way?

The Group takes its cue from Mary McCarthy’s frank, absorbing novel about a group of female graduates. The relations between men and women may be different now but, in the age of Me Too, they’re equally fraught. This is an engrossing portrait of contemporary female life and friendship, and a thrillingly intimate and acute take on female character in an age that may or may not have been changed by feminism in its different strands.

My Review

The Group, the debut novel by Lara Feigel is set in modern day London, features a group of female friends who met at University twenty years earlier and is an examination of friendship, motherhood, marriage, sex, sexuality, relationships, Me Too, mental health, feminism and everything in between. The women, Priss, Kay, Helena, Polly and our narrator Stella are all in their late thirties/early forties, middle-class and are all at a tipping point in their lives.

It’s brilliantly written and uses a very unusual style. Our narrator is Stella and she tells us about her friends, dropping in small morsels of their history, of how they interlink, their closeness and their secrets. It’s really well done, so much so that until there was a reference to herself, I forgot Stella was even narrating. It really works as it allows us to both get closer to the group and understand them fully whilst keeping us just far enough removed that there is mystery and a desire to know more.

This book really resonated with me. I too am in my late thirties, and although I don’t live in London, am possibly not quite as middle class as these women and sadly don’t work in publishing like some of the characters in the book I found that there were enormous swathes of the book which I could identify with.

It is an intelligent examination of women and their different facets. In the group of five three are mothers, one is trying to be a mother and the fifth is undecided about having children. It seems reductive to say “three are mothers”, as in their own ways all five women are mothers; to each other, to partners, to siblings and to parents. Quite often I read books where women are almost put in two camps, those with children and those who are child free and the grey area in between isn’t examined, or if it is it is clumsy and oftentimes insulting. In this book, the three women with children are experiencing different versions of motherhood. Lara Feigel lays bare the difficulties, the highs and the lows and isn’t afraid to write about how much of a woman’s identity is tied up in and lost by motherhood.

She also explores what it is like to be a woman in her late thirties and not have children when your peers do. My ecopy of The Group is littered with highlighted sections which perfectly encapsulate what it feels like, especially when it comes to your time being seen as being less valuable, one line in particular stood out to me,

Polly is the only one who’s not busy with procreation or children, so she is apparently the one who has time to care.

There is also a wonderful examination of the isolation, loneliness and the feeling of being “left behind in ordinariness by a woman who has been chosen by the gods to enter a magical realm” which I thought was perfectly pitched.

I think I am really drawn to books like this. It made me think and made me reflect, especially when it comes to the nature of female friendships. The Group is a snapshot of life for these five women in a time when their lives are in a state of flux. The friendship between women is a complex and intricate thing, and when women have been friends for this long it is susceptible to ebbs and flows. This isn’t a saccharine sweet portrayal of female friendships, in fact it as times brutal and difficult to read and feels incredibly honest and real.

I have barely scratched the surface of the themes explored in The Group. It is one of those books which provokes thought and may mean different things to different readers depending upon their life experiences. It is based on a book of the same name written by Mary McCarthy in 1963 and set in the 1930s in America. I am intrigued and I’m going to hunt a copy out as I’d love to read and compare the themes addressed in both novels.

If smart, insightful novels about modern life are your thing then The Group could be for you. It is insightful, relevant and current and days after reading it I keep thinking about it. Recommended.

Where You Can Buy It

The Group by Lara Feigel was published on 2nd July by John Murray Press and is out now in both hardcover and ebook.

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