‘A Charmed Life’ by Mary McCarthy – A Disastrous Return to New Leeds

‘A Charmed Life’ by Mary McCarthy   (1954) – 313 pages


The title of this novel which was written by Mary McCarthy in the 1950s, ‘A Charmed Life’, is ironic. Much of the novel is taken up with a very ugly situation.

I had read only one Mary McCarthy novel before, the excellent ‘The Groves of Academe’ which is a very fine and funny wicked parody of the academic community.  I wanted to read more.

In ‘A Charmed Life’, Martha and her second husband John are returning to New Leeds, an “artistic” community in New England. Even in the best of circumstances it is probably a dicey thing to return to live in a place where you once lived before. However they are returning to New Leeds in the worst of circumstances.  It was in New Leeds where Martha’s first marriage had failed, her house had burned down, and she ran off in scandal with John.  Worst of all, her nasty ex-husband Miles Murphy still lives there.

Miles Murphy is an intellectual and an alcoholic who trashes those closest to him, especially his wives, for his own benefit.  Martha had met him when he was forty and she was twenty, and he seduced her on their first date.  She never wanted to marry him, but he insisted.  On her wedding night, he struck her for the first time.  She spent four miserable years with him before finally getting the courage to run away.  This story could have been ripped out of today’s headlines.

Why Martha would return to the scene of this crime, this artistic community of New Leeds, one cannot fathom, but these things do happen.  Now after seven years, Martha and her nice if nondescript new husband John have returned to New Leeds.  Of course they run into Miles and his new young wife, and things get messy once again.

 “He (Miles) was thinking of Martha.  He had always had a weakness for intelligent women, though he knew them to be bad for him, like drink or certain kinds of food.  They disagreed with him, in both senses of the word.”

Miles Murphy is about as mean and nasty a villain as one could find in any novel.  Unfortunately for Martha, she still has some unresolved feelings for him on some intellectual level.  She lets Miles drive her home one evening when John is out of town, and Miles forces himself on her.  By today’s standards, this sex scene is more like a rape than any kind of consensual sex. Later the inevitable happens, and we have this ugly situation.

Mary McCarthy’s writing is lively and intelligent. I ploughed through this novel quickly because I wanted to find out what happens next.

The novel goes somewhat astray for me when they have that fateful get-together during which they read ‘Berenice’ by Racine.  A reading or performance of a play within a novel can be a powerful device for a novel if the play reflects on or intensifies the main theme of the novel.  However in this case the play only leads to random intellectualizing by the group and doesn’t reflect on the main theme of the novel which I take to be Martha’s intense dislike for her ex-husband Miles.  Instead the highbrow discussion after the play brings Miles and Martha closer together again, and Martha agrees to let Miles drive her home.

The basic problem with ‘A Charmed Life’ is that Mary McCarthy is trying to achieve two contradictory goals at once.  Her one goal is to lightly parody the vagaries and pretensions of this artistic community of New Leeds.  Her other goal is to deal with this very ugly personal situation between Martha and her ex-husband Miles.  Ultimately the light parody and the intense drama do not cohere.

On the other hand, I expect I will remember the plot of ‘A Charmed Life’ long after many other novels have come and gone from my mind.



Grade:   B   


7 responses to this post.

  1. LOL I think I’ll skip this one…



  2. To my shame I have at least two (possibly three) McCarthy novels lurking on the TBR unread, including this one. I’d like to read her – I frankly just need more time!



  3. Tony, I’m so glad you read thisI found it utterly hilarious, but I also love The Groves of Academe. I am so glad she’s getting attention again now that the Library of America reissued her books. Even Margaret Drabble reviewed her in the TLS! (The English don’t really get her, though.)

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Kat,
      I actually got the idea to read ‘A Charmed Life’ from your recent post on your site. You mentioned ‘A Charmed Life’ as one of your Mary McCarthy favorites, and i was thinking it was time for me to return to Mary McCarthy, so I chose that one. 🙂



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