When a novel’s first paragraph is, in its entirety, this:
“It’s throat-numbing spray,” she grinned mischievously. “For blowjobs.”
— it’s clear that this is not your high school English class’s Nathaniel Hawthorne. But, in truth, how much have things really changed?
The Scarlet Letter Society in the debut novel of the same name by author, Mary McCarthy, is a pseudo-book club comprised of three women who meet monthly to discuss literature and their various affairs of the heart — and, notably and vigorously — other organs. As we follow Eva the monied, bi-citied attorney; Maggie, the much married, bi-curious, vintage-clothing seller; and Lisa, the semi-outsider, bakery owner with a secret; (and eventually Zarina, who owns the coffee shop where the women meet and eavesdrops her way into honorary membership) through eleven months of meetings and raucous adventures, we are gently led to ponder whether Hester Prynne’s Scarlet A is really a thing of the past?
McCarthy does a clever thing here. In a fast-moving, beach-read-worthy, chick-lit format, rife with eroticism and ovaries-to-the-wall, full on embrace of good sex, romance, and wham, bam, thank you ma’am (and sir and — well, ma’am again) bang up prose — which portions are purposefully anything but subtle — she also manages to subtly sneak in with finesse an even more provocative social commentary about gender roles and societal expectations and chains and the continuing strain of Puritanism and sin-shaming in the culture.
The Scarlet Letter Society also salutes its forebears, mentioning Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and its introduction to the zipless-you-know-what, and too, manages to reference other literary works by using them as club-choices, pointing out in the process how all-too-common it is for literary heroines to suffer and die. These heroines do some suffering, there is some dying, and too, there is parenting and a big-gay-wedding, and sea glass collecting, and finding meaning in popular song lyrics, and doubting one’s choices, and learning to compromise and growing up and giving back and knowing when to leave and all of it with a sense of humor, with an awareness of how far the world has come since the original Hawthorne Scarlet Letter, and yet, a bit of melancholy about how little – in some ways – things have changed at all.
If you’re looking for a fast read with a healthy dose of zip-less, snap-less, button-less, velcro-less sexcapades, all delivered with brazen, bawdy brio, then pick up (or download) Mary McCarthy’s The Scarlet Letter Society.