The devastation of private lives in America

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Six People in Search of a Life Paul Solotaroff (Allen Lane, £18.99)

Six People in Search of a Life Paul Solotaroff (Allen Lane, £18.99)

This is the book for US election year. Forget dispatches from the primaries or profiles of Tipper Gore. Group gives a far more illuminating glimpse into the state of the union. And what it reveals makes the film American Beauty look like a teddy bears' picnic.

This was clearly not Paul Solotaroff's intention when he set out to write his fly-on-the-wall account of group therapy in New York. Solotaroff was not only allowed to sit in on all the sessions, but given access to the individuals outside the group for interviews about their lives.

This group is made up of six white, middle-class New Yorkers, aged between 30 and 60, all living through some kind of crisis: marriages breaking up, battles against addiction, problems with depression. Sara, for instance, is 37 and the fashion editor of a glamour magazine. Beautiful and bright, she is "depressed and withdrawn, afraid she'll never find a man". Rex, 31, is a Wall Street high-achiever who had "crashed and burned after an affair" while his wife was pregnant with their first child. Dylan, 48, writes theme songs for TV shows. Two of his best friends have suddenly died and his marriage has broken up: "it's like he woke up in a war zone."

Group weaves skilfully between the six stories, exploring the dynamics between them. Much of the book's appeal is basic human interest. Who will change their lives? Who will drop out of the group? Will Lina (engaged in a bitter divorce battle with her rich, abusive husband) punch Rex, the handsome, rich womaniser? It is a lively, at times gripping read, which, despite the psychobabble gives a human face to group therapy.

On the surface, Group is positive and upbeat. Its message is that people can change their lives and find love and new fulfilment in work. Freud would approve. Whether he would recognise this 1990s version of the talking cure is more debatable. Instead of old-school analysts with German accents, we have the maverick, eclectic therapist Lathon, offering drugs and advice. There's no ego, superego and id. Instead we get "crisis management", "naming your pain" and a six-month course of serzone.

It's not just therapy that's changed. So have the patients, and this is where Group gets interesting. Underneath the stories of fulfilment and change is a darker subtext. Most of the six are divorced, or getting divorced. Jack is on his fourth marriage. Most consume vast amounts of drugs, mainly cocaine and anti-depressants. Of the four men, two are alcoholics and one used to be. Money goes through their systems at a terrifying rate. Jack went bankrupt, owing three years' back taxes. Dylan spends $12,000 in a joyless, week-long binge.

The men treat their wives appallingly, and for the women in the group this is second time around. Both were undermined and emotionally abused by their fathers. The book paints a frightening picture of family life and what emerges from it are sad, empty people, filling the emptiness with drugs, booze and credit cards, fighting off panic attacks at work and trying to save their marriages at home. In Jack's words, "there's no there, there."

What interests Solotaroff are the personal stories; you could see them making a good TV movie. He's not terribly curious about what makes therapy work - if it does. But what he misses, above all, is the bigger picture. What kind of society produces people like these? For that, it's worth returning to Christopher Lasch's underrated classic, The Culture of Narcissism. Everything Lasch wrote about "the devastation of private life" in late-1970s America is here, almost word for word.

It is easy to see Group as a story of self-absorbed New Yorkers with more money than sense. That would be unfair and, worse, misses the point. These people are suffering. Even if they experience it as purely personal and private, this suffering is part of a bigger social story. There is something terribly wrong in contemporary America - even for the apparent success stories. Sadly, this year's elections won't even begin to address it.