The insularity of the members of the group is established immediately when all gather in New York for the wedding of “Kay Leiland Strong, Vassar ’33, the first of her class to run around the table at the Class Day dinner,” to “Harald [spelled with an “a”] Petersen, Reed ’27, in the chapel of St. George’s Church, P. E., Karl F. Reiland, Rector.” The girls, most of whom have grown up in the Eighties or on Park Avenue, delight in discovering for the first time various sections of the city such as Murray Hill, MacDougal Alley, Patchin Place, and the Heights section of Brooklyn. As a group, they feel adventuresome, armed with their ideas fresh from Vassar’s campus. Kay, who has worked with Hallie Flanagan in dramatic production and has been changed by her course in animal behavior with “old Miss Washburn,” is beginning a merchandising career at Macy’s. All eight sisters are excited, yet disquieted, by some of the daringly unconventional aspects of her wedding.
In this first chapter, each groupmate is briefly introduced by her reactions to the unconventionalities. “Who would have thunk it?” “What perfect pets they look!” “Not too bad,” said another, “Except for the shoes.” In all of their excitement and their questioning, however, they “knew they had something to contribute to our emergent America” and were “not afraid of being radical either; they could see the good Roosevelt was doing, despite what Mother and Dad said.” Even the most “conservative of them, pushed to the wall, admitted that an honest socialist was entitled to a hearing. The worst fate, they utterly agreed, would be to become like Mother and Dad, stuffy and frightened.” As though to underscore this unconventionality, older persons, even Kay’s parents, were absent at the wedding.
Slowly Kay is removed from center stage in the novel into the role of simply one of the nine classmates. As their varied lives cross paths, McCarthy documents with heavy detail the “progress” of each. She is ruthlessly clinical, for example, as she describes the manner in which Dottie Renfrew, Bostonian par excellence, decides, two nights after Kay’s wedding, that the time for sexual...
Catherine (Kay) Leiland Strong, of Salt Lake City, an outsider yet the generally acknowledged leader of a group of eight recent graduates of Vassar, class of 1933. During their senior year, the girls shared a coveted suite in South Tower. Although not entirely compatible or equally fond of one another, they developed a close-knit coterie, somewhat dominated by the strong will of Kay, who often shocked them with her audacious ideas, adventurous spirit, uninhibited language, and unconventional behavior. Kay is the first to announce her engagement to be married, to Harald Petersen, a stage manager and aspiring playwright. By some of the group, Kay is suspected of having married Harald out of ambition, as she developed an interest in the theater while at Vassar. The couple live in an impoverished but hopeful state while Harald struggles to establish himself in the theater world and Kay works at Macy’s. Harald is unfaithful to her without her knowledge, does not achieve outstanding success as a playwright (no one wants to produce his plays), and becomes a small-time gambler. They quarrel constantly. Shortly before the fifth reunion of the class of 1933, Kay is rumored to be on the verge of both a divorce and a breakdown. She is hospitalized for a while, then goes home to Salt Lake City to live with her parents, divorces Harald, and returns to live alone in New York. By this time, the members of the group have not been in touch with Kay for several years. They gather to arrange a proper funeral for her, dead at the age of twenty-nine after a fall (or leap) from the twentieth floor of the Vassar Club.
Dorothy (Dottie) Renfrew
Dorothy (Dottie) Renfrew, a member of the group, from Boston. After graduation, Dottie spends a few months in New York, learning about sex. Despite her religious scruples, naïveté, and close relationship with her mother, Dottie deliberately loses her virginity to Dick Brown, a recently divorced painter who lives across the hall from Kay and Harald. Dottie immediately falls in love with Dick, who has forbidden her to do so but is quite willing to continue having sex with her if she will get a diaphragm. She undergoes a painful and humiliating ordeal in obtaining one after arranging to meet Dick later at a bench in Washington Square, but he never appears. The next day, she returns to Boston. Sent by her parents to Arizona for her health, she becomes engaged there to a wealthy mine owner named Brook Latham, an older man and a widower. She admits to her mother that she still loves Dick Brown, and Mrs. Renfrew sympathetically urges her to see Dick once more and to postpone the wedding. Dottie refuses and goes to live in Arizona. She does not return to New York for Kay’s funeral.
Helena Davison, a Clevelander and Kay’s former roommate. Her parents are very wealthy but plain-living and self-educated. After graduation, Helena plans to teach in a private nursery school, but first she travels to Europe. On her return, she does not look for a job because her father believes that by taking one she would deprive a woman who needs it much more. Helena becomes an art student. She has a droll sense of humor and is well versed in modern literature, music, and art; she is the most accomplished member of the group in many fields. Living in Cleveland, she is not closely connected to any member of the group, but as class correspondent for the Alumnae Magazine, she does occasionally see her friends and reports on their activities in a trite, coy style that is a parody of that kind of writing. She imagines writing such a piece when she attends a party to celebrate Harald’s sale to a producer of an option on his play. There she discovers, in the kitchen, Harald and Norine Schmittlap Black in a passionate embrace. Norine was a classmate but not a member of the group. Feeling pity and embarrassment for Kay, Helena does not reveal to anyone what she has seen. The next day, Norine asks Helena to visit her; Helena learns of Norine’s unhappy marriage to Putnam Blake, who she says is impotent, thus attempting to justify the fact that she and Harald have been lovers for a long while. To the surprise of both women, Helena speaks frankly and gruffly to Norine, who thanks her for telling the truth about her faulty thinking and disgraceful style of life.