One thing that has become abundantly clear over the course of this novel is that there is nothing holding “the group” together apart from the school tie. Chapters Eleven and Twelve, our reading for today, both concern Polly Andrews, whose blue-blood family lost their money in the stock market crash and who have been making do by operating a farm. She is herself working as a nurse technician, and lives quite modestly. She seems to have the least in common with the other women of the group—no longer even bonded to them by the rawer facts of class privilege, even if she retains a fair amount of cultural capital—although that is itself debatable. None of the women are kindred spirits, at least not in an organic or spontaneous way.
Yet few readers, I imagine, question the naturalness of the novel’s central conceit, at least none who count among their lifelong friends college roommates or first-year floor-mates. The story of mismatched pals whose connection is explained only by this circumstantial bond is easily accepted because it is true to life. I remember seeing the film Sideways, which stars the unlikely pair Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as two former college roommates who reunite for a tour of the wine country in northern California, and thinking, yes, that makes sense. For the generation who could have read The Group in college, the classic film The Big Chill told much the same story.
In other words, we are deeply drawn to stories about the near-instant and yet profoundly durable bonds we are thrown into by the random lottery of the university housing office: one of the first and perhaps most fundamental appeals of the Harry Potter series was, after all, the drama of the Sorting Hat. And just today, a number of my college friends on Facebook shared this photo of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and the actress Connie Britton, who were study-abroad roommates in Beijing when this photo was taken. Gillibrand included the photo in her new book, Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World.
The emotions I think this photo evoked in my friends—and in me—were a little complex: there was a general connection made to the joy of remembering how close one could be to one’s roommate, how intense and fulfilling that relationship could be. But there was also, since most of my friends who were sharing the photo were doing so because both Britton and Gillibrand are fellow graduates of our alma mater, Dartmouth College, a sense of vicarious ambition that is instilled quietly in environments like Dartmouth or Vassar—a whispered belief that the luck of the draw could have roomed you with a future senator.
This is probably an entirely bogus connection, but I will offer it any way: Polly Andrews’s hometown is Fall River, Massachusetts, which also happens to be the childhood home of Lowell Schmaltz, the Babbitt-clone protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’s forgotten novel The Man Who Knew Coolidge. The first part of that novel is a shaggy dog story told by Schmaltz about how he attended Amherst College at the same time as Calvin Coolidge, and later decided to look up his old friend in the White House. Schmaltz now lives in Zenith, the fictional Midwestern city in which Lewis set a number of his other novels, and the bulk of the story is a series of digressions on his adventures getting to DC. It turns out that, after waiting for an hour or more in a White House anteroom, the secretary was obviously stalling Schmaltz and Coolidge doesn’t know him from Adam. The Man who Knew Coolidge didn’t.
But what we might glean from this implausible bit of intertextuality is a rather humorous sidelight on the tendentious nature of our investment in school ties. It is meaningful to many people that their classmates, or members of a class a year above or below them, made good, and in places like Amherst or Vassar or Dartmouth there is a feathery layer of careerism nestled in among the genuinely offered love for one’s roommates or floormates.
Chapters Eleven and Twelve of The Group offer an implicit comparison of this kind of bond with two other relationships which, on their face, ought to come off well in comparison, though they do not: political comradeship and marriage. Polly is surrounded by members of one left-wing sect or another: she is seeing a Stalinist at first, later marries an indifferent supporter of Norman Thomas, and shares a rooming house with a charming Trotskyist, who in turn converts her aristocratic father to the cause in a rather hilarious turn of events. She herself remains unpersuaded—though she does say that presented with a picket line she would join the Trotskyists—and is generally unruffled as she also encounters Lovestoneites, Musteites… the full panoply, evidently. Polly compares joining one or another of these sects or cells to mental illnesses, although she is not sure which is given to manic-depression and which exhibits mere neuroticism.
Marriage is also held somewhat suspect. Two marital separations—one a failure, one a success—run through these chapters, and at the end of it Polly does marry, but in a manner that deliberately resolves like a story from Redbook: Polly has been worrying about money so she begins donating her blood at the hospital at which she works; a doctor who has been admiring her from afar sees this, is overcome with pity and passion, and proposes on the spot. McCarthy’s great talent is manifest in pulling this scene off, but part of her success is due to the very obvious laugh she is having while writing it.
Politics and love—one would think that those forces would be held much the stronger in comparison with mere circumstance—the coincidence of attending the same school at the same time. McCarthy doesn’t so much suggest that they cannot be stronger as she allows her wry skepticism to suggest that they often aren’t. It is yet another tough “truth” that she presents to us, in a book full of them.
But the solidity of the school tie is, come to think of it, often the underlying message of many of these college group romances: lovers come and go, political allegiances sway with the times, but freshman year is forever.
 Oddly, McCarthy, whose sympathies also ran in that direction, insists on using the derogatory term “Trotskyite” rather than “Trotskyist” throughout the chapter.