Book Review: The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

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The Company She Keeps – Mary McCarthy (Penguin Books, 1966)

A few years back, during the cold and snowy Chilliwack winter that Peter and I first subscribed to Netflix, I watched the first two seasons of Mad Men. Everyone seemed to be telling us that we had to watch this show. How clever it was, how realistic, how engaging. In the end, I don’t think we made it all the way through the second season. The show made my skin crawl, left me feeling depressed that there wasn’t one single character I could cheer for.

The Company She Keeps left me feeling a similar way. I skimmed through the last chapter but had given up any hope of redemption. I struggled to finish it because it just made me feel sad. Not sad in a way that inspires change or new thought, as some excellent books do.

More a collection of vignettes than a novel, The Company She Keeps tells stories of one woman’s life in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Probably best known for The Group, this was McCarthy’s first novel. Our main character is Margaret and we meet her as her first marriage is ending in divorce. She’s had an affair and is realizing that she doesn’t want to marry the man she’s been unfaithful with. From there we witness other snippets of Margaret’s life. Her time working in a shady art gallery. Her trip to Reno to finalize her divorce and the man she meets on the train. Her work at a Marxist newspaper. Each section is primarily a story of Margaret’s relationship with a different man, often told primarily from that man’s perspective. And this is what made me sad. Who Margaret is – and she seems like an interesting person – is lost in the men around her. Who she is seems to change drastically in each section and I’m not sure if this is poor writing from McCarthy or an attempt to show how Margaret doesn’t know how to exist except in relation to a man. I didn’t get the feeling I felt that I didn’t know anything real about her.

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