The Company She Keeps

I’ve just finished Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps. I knew McCarthy from her introduction to Nabokov’s Pale Fire, so when I came across her first novel, I thought it might be worth a read.

The novel’s “hook” lies in the fact that each chapter is written from a different perspective. We have one chapter in the first person (“an extract from memoirs begun by the heroine”), one in the second person, and a couple of third-person portraits at various levels of intimacy – some with the heroine as the subject, and some, as it were, catching her unawares in the background. Although we are never directly narrated to by any of the other characters, we get a lot of opportunities to see the heroine through their eyes. McCarthy handles this really well, and in particular the second-person chapter came across very naturally.

This heroine I mentioned is Meg Sargent, a young woman living in New York in the 30s. Although intellegent, cultured, and (no doubt) attractive, she has trouble committing – both professionally and in romance. After a divorce, she finds herself drifting; living a rather “second-rate” lifestyle and getting involved with men who are all “lame ducks” in one way or another. All this, of course, is borne of existential angst and unfortunate childhood experience (the poor dear was Catholic on the mother’s side), with a dash of bourgeois guilt thrown in. However, because Meg is a bright girl, and pathologically honest to boot (she never lets herself believe the lies she tells), it is not quite as simple as that. Although she searches for meaning, she tends to see through any answers (and men) she and others come up with.

A friend of mine pointed out that I have a tendency to enjoy these semiautographical studies of medium-strong female characters – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie being another major example. Actually, Spark’s novel has an unusual narrative structure too. I’m not quite sure where the appeal lies, but I guess interesting form and psychological insight are pretty good traits for a novel to have, especially if the insight is into the mind of a sexy lady!

The only real problem with the book is the introduction. Here McCarthy pretty much sabotages the story by giving a rather pat explanation of the heroine’s motivation. It’s odd because in the text itself we grasp this motivation quite subtly, which is much more satisying. Funnier still, McCarthy does exactly the same thing in her Pale Fire introduction – she gives away her interpretation of the “true” story behind the narrator’s account, and this can really spoil our enjoyment of Nabokov’s hinting style.

The Company She Keeps, despite the many narrative perspectives, has a lot of coherence and unity. As such, it is self-sufficient, so it is probably hard to write a good introduction about it. If you consider the novel on its own, it is a very good read.

Published in: on September 9, 2010 at 11:27 am  Leave a Comment