THIS INERT LUMP of a book is the latest entrant in the Groupstakes, that ongoing competition among American writers to copy the formula that Mary McCarthy patented in The Group. That novel, published two decades ago, told the stories of eight young women who graduated from Vassar College in 1933 and attempted to make their way through a difficult and puzzling world; it contained ample doses of social satire and, by the standards of the day, sex; it aroused a certain degree of heated chatter in those circles where books have the power to cause controversy, and it enjoyed a commercial success sufficiently terrific to arouse the envy of just about every other writer then and since. It spawned countless imitations, by writers of both sexes, some of which managed to duplicate the formula but none of which came close to the best-seller lists.
Now comes Superior Women, which contains all the ingredients of the formula except interesting characters, interesting plot and interesting prose. Its author, Alice Adams, has received favorable comment for her earlier books, but on the evidence of Superior Women it is difficult to see why. What is not difficult to see, by contrast, is the cranking of the machinery as she hauls out the McCarthy formula and runs it through her own typewriter; there's formula aplenty in Superior Women, but there's precious little else.
The time is the summer of 1943, 10 years after McCarthy's octet made its way out of Vassar. Now, under an accelerated schedule designed to accommodate the needs of wartime, five girls are matriculating at Radcliffe College. They have been cast, appropriately enough, according to the foxhole theory made so popular in Hollywood war movies of the period:
Megan, the heroine if that is the word for her, is a Californian of little means who is "avid for a quality that she has not seen much of and could not name; what she considers Eastern comes close." She is attractive but somewhat overweight, and possessed of appetites that lead her to believe "that in a sexual way she is indeed different, not quite like other girls."
Lavinia is a rich, beautiful -- well, "scrupulously analyzed, Lavinia's features are not actually beautiful; she simply gives a strong impression of beauty" -- Southern belle to whom life has been handed unsullied on a silver platter but who manages, of course, to tarnish it quite satisfactorily with her unhappy marriage and not much happier love affairs.
Peg is your basic "jolly noisy old good-hearted" rich girl whose motherly feelings toward the other girls disguise mysterious and forbidden yearnings. She marries (surprise!) badly and goes off to Texas, where she raises a large brood and a social conscience.
Cathy is a "withdrawn, and enclosed" Catholic from Philadelphia, who "is generally hostile to new impressions, new ideas, and heaven knows hostile to new people, generally." When she finally does come up with a new idea, it brings her little except trouble, heartbreak and self-hatred, though for a while there she does have a pretty good time.
Janet is from Brooklyn and is Jewish, and that's about all there is to be said about her. Apart from marrying an astonishingly loathsome character who becomes a famous playwright and promptly drops her, her sole function in the novel is to be Jewish. This means that Lavinia will speak disparagingly of her and Megan will be sympathetic, and that otherwise Janet will have precious little to do with the action, such as it is, of the novel.
There they are: The Group. At Radcliffe they learn all manner of things, many of them having to do with the pleasures and frustrations of love, not to mention the mysteries of the opposite sex. "Men are different," Lavinia discovers, for some reason failing to add the obligatory "Eureka!" Good old Peg, miserably wedded to the inept Cameron Sinclair, worries in a letter to Megan: "There is something, actually several things, that I do not understand. About Cameron. Men. Could you help? Do you know a lot of men? Understand them?" Well, actually, no; none of these women understands men, and none of their men understands women, and what we have here is a failure in communications.
What we also have is a shopping list of public events, causes and fads. As the women leave Radcliffe and enter the world, Adams dutifully trots them through everything from civil rights to Watergate; some of the men they meet turn out to be homosexuals, and one of the five ladies turns out to be a lesbian, which makes her very happy in the end; dear Lavinia, spreading her favors as she may, manages to become passionately involved -- successively, and almost simultaneously -- with an aristocratic communist and a high official of (!) the Committee to Re-Elect the President. All of this romancing is heady stuff, precious little of it ends up satisfactorily, and it leaves Megan wondering: "Are some men put off by extremes of intelligence or even attractiveness in women -- put off by superior women? This is a new thought, highly puzzling, unwelcome, and difficult to digest. And it is true; she is quite sure of that."
This, alas, is how Alice Adams writes: nearly 400 pages of breathy little sentences, almost all of them in the present tense. As she writes at one point, "Lavinia and Peg often address each other in this sort of semi-baby talk, but today Megan finds it especially embarrassing." Well, what Adams writes comes embarrassingly close to baby talk too, and reading it at such length is approximately as pleasurable as spending several hours scraping one's fingernails on a blackboard. Given the choice, I'd take the latter.