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Betty Draper Book Club: So What’s With “The Group”?

“Mad Men” acolytes with eagle eyes might’ve noticed that the book Betty Draper brought into the tub with her on last night’s episode was none other than The Group by Mary McCarthy. Published in 1963 but set in the 1930s, The Group is a subtly scathing portrait of a circle of educated, upwardly mobile New York society women who all went to Vassar College — at the time more of a finishing school than a bastion of liberal education – together. The book follows these eight frenemies as their lives unfold and unravel after graduation, seeing them through abusive marriages, extra-marital affairs, birth control, familial conflict, class war, Communist sympathies, lesbianism, suicide and the ever-elusive female orgasm.Obviously, the choice of book was no accident. The question is, what’s its presence trying to tell us about Betty’s internal landscape? Taking into account what we know of Betty’s past – traditional WASP upbringing, Bryn Mawr education, brief stint modeling in New York – it’s obvious she would feel a kinship to the characters in the book. But whether this is portentous of some sort of suicidal crack-up à la The Group’s main protagonist, the long-suffering Kay Leiland Strong, or merely a meticulous historical flourish meant to symbolize Betty’s literate sensibilities and pop-culture savvy remains unclear. One thing’s for certain: trouble’s a-brewin’ in Ossining.

Much as this book seems to spell an ominous fate for Betty, I’d like to hope she gets her hands on a few other classic ’60s tomes – like, say, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, or Sex and the Single Girl, released in 1962 – before she throws in the towel and pulls a Sylvia Plath. Both volumes are similarly classic and of-the-era, and both have significantly more empowering messages than the evocative yet dismal message of The Group. Could you imagine if Betty got her Friedan on, left Don, got herself a swingin’ single-girl pied-à-terre in NYC and started hanging out at The Factory? Now that’s a spin-off I’d want to watch!

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