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Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy Paperback – May 17, 2002

3.8 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"To see Mary McCarthy plain is not quite so simple as it sounds," writes Frances Kiernan, a comment amply borne out in her many-faceted biography of one of America's most famous and controversial women of letters. Interspersing her narrative and analysis of McCarthy's life (1912-1989) with lengthy direct quotes from the writer's friends, lovers, colleagues, and enemies, Kiernan tries to blend the depth of a critical biography with the immediacy of oral history. The mixture doesn't always quite gel, but McCarthy's forceful personality emerges with intimacy and pungency from the chorus of disparate opinions. Her character was formed by her parents' early deaths, a miserable childhood redeemed by intellectual stardom in school, and scads of poorly judged sexual entanglements (including a ghastly seven years wed to Edmund Wilson) that ended only with her happy fourth marriage. There's little in McCarthy's life that isn't already familiar to readers of her fiction, from The Company She Keeps to The Group, and her liberal political convictions are also a matter of record, not least from her own journalism and essays. Kiernan's achievement is to reveal a woman best known for her slashing intellect and feared for her ferocious critical judgments as very human and surprisingly vulnerable. --Wendy Smith --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In an autobiographical short story by McCarthy, a psychiatrist tells the heroine, "Let me suggest to you... that this ordeal of your childhood has been the controlling factor of your life." In 1918, when she was six, McCarthy's parents died in the flu epidemic then sweeping the U.S. With her siblings, she was raised by a loveless aunt and uncle; these interconnected events became the core of her remarkable Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. The brilliant savagery of her best criticism and fiction has its roots in that defining experience, prodigiously recreated by Kiernan, a former fiction editor at the New Yorker. After Vassar and the Depression (both figure in her notorious novel The Group), McCarthy joined what Kiernan calls "the increasingly acrimonious and contentious world of New York intellectuals," writing for the new Partisan Review and sleeping with its editors and writers. She had four marriages (with Edmund Wilson, among others) and many affairs, and, as a diplomat's wife, lived abroad, largely self-exiled from the milieu that fed her mordant satire. Kiernan uses a biographical device of setting off from her narrative blocks of quotation from interviewees so that in many places the book reads like oral history, a technique that sometimes works, but adds hundreds of loosely integrated pages. How McCarthy used real life in her fiction, she once explained, was to "take real plums and put them in an imaginary cake." Kiernan applies the method too generously, overstocking her book with myriad details. Yet it evokes a fascinating portrait of a woman with "great personal glamour" and "ferocious intelligence." 16 pages of photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 848 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (May 17, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393323072
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393323078
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,272,437 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Frances Kiernan's biography experiments with form to get at the essence of an exceedingly complicated and complex writer. By combining excerpts from McCarthy's published writers, letters to and from her, and the comments of many people (famous and not) who knew her, the book shows us a woman who is talented but capricious; a loyal friend and a fierce enemy, a sharp intellect and a charming hostess. Ms. Kiernan provides just enough narrative thread to stitch these disparate voices together, and while she clearly admires McCarthy, she is not afraid to criticize her subject. By presenting so many contrasting viewpoints, the book invites us (much like the film Rashomon) to draw our own conclusions. This is a worthy biography and one that should compel the reader back to McCarthy's own stories, novels, and essays.
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Format: Hardcover
I love Mary McCarthy's writing. Her prose is so knowing, and so smart that it takes my breath away. I didn't know anything about her at all until I read this book. It's a terrific read - McCarthy's life was flamboyant, daring, challenging. She was a feminist in the most modern sense of the word, and a devastatingly attractive woman. I believe her writing deserves to be better known and this biography may be the thing to get her some of that recognition, because the more you read about her, the more you want to see how it comes across in her text. I am dying to get back into my Mary McCarthy books and see how far it was autobiographical. The writer of this book is never prurient but never produces anything that isn't fabulously titillating. A great gift for a literary girlfriend.
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A Kid's Review on August 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The author takes a back seat and allows us to step into Mary McCarthy's life as if we were one of her circle of friends. Wonderfully detailed with quotes from the major literary lights of our day.
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Format: Hardcover
Mary McCarthy led a fascinating life, and this very long biography makes you feel like you know the whole story. Although it is overly long (and I'm a slow reader), it's made up of quotations and excerpts from the many many famous people who knew her, along with some of her own writings. And the people she knew! We hear direct from no lesser persons than Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, Gore Vidal, Renata Adler, Susan Sontag, Clement Greenberg, Peggy Guggenheim, Edmund Wilson (who was also her second husband)! Alfred Kazin, Pauline Kael. The who's who list of Mary's illustrious friends is delicious; we read these people's up-close impressions of Mary at all the different stages of her life, and in the end, her death.

Kiernan herself is an extremely good writer: sympathetic, thoughtful, careful, never too wordy. She probably couldn't bring herself to cut any of this marvelous gossip and firsthand impression; and there were so many interesting stages of McCarthy's life that it would have been hard to leave anything out.

Mary McCarthy was a dynamo: a prolific writer, a teacher, a (for a time) single mother; married four times, with the last one a happy marriage. She put all of herself into her work, including managing the literary estate of her close friend Hannah Arendt. Through all this, she was a consummate entertainer, furnishing and decorating house after beautiful house, and apartments from Paris to New York to New England, and putting on grand and elegant dinner parties featuring her own first-rate cooking. It was as if her deprived childhood--McCarthy was orphaned at an early age and, during her formative years, raised by sadistic, loveless relatives--created in her a craving for the good life: abundant food, warm company, gracious living.
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Format: Hardcover
If Mary McCarthy's only accomplishment was to expose Lillian Hellman as a duplicitous Stalinist trollope, hers would still be a life worth celebrating. She was involved with, or had something to say about every major social and political issue of mid-century. Her friendships were numerous and varied. She was married four times (once to literary titan Edmund Wilson) and had many tempestuous affairs. It's disappointing, therefore, that this biography is such a disjointed and discursive hodge podge of gossip, hearsay, and innuendo. Not that those are bad things, but if that's all the attention McCarthy deserves why not just let Kitty Kelly do the book? While the author may have had a successful career as fiction editor of The New Yorker while it was being transformed into a middlebrow women's magazine, she lacks the skills necessary compose a biography of a subject as protean as Mary McCarthy.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
In this essential book about Mary McCarthy, Frances Kiernan artfully weaves her own narrative of McCarthy's life with comments from a number of people who knew McCarthy at various stages of her life. These people (including McCarthy's last husband, James West), spoke to Kiernan with sometimes breathtaking frankness, and the result is a portrait that is always forthright and never simply flattering. Any reader interested in the work or life of Mary McCarthy will find an unvarnished picture of the writer in Seeing Mary Plain. As a bonus, they will discover a host of interesting commentators, many of whom have since died, who did not hesitate to speak their minds.
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