Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Help


My friend Sandra came over to visit two weeks ago and handed me this book, The Help by Kathyrn Stockett. She had recently read it for her book club and loved it. I'd heard about the book but somehow hadn't felt compelled to get a copy myself. It did turn out to be very good. However, I thought it was also flawed.

The Help is set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi. A young white woman, Skeeter, decides to write a book about the working lives of domestic helpers. Two African-American maids, Aibileen and Minny agree to participate in the risky project. The story is told from the points of view of the three women. Their various accounts are touching, harrowing and also funny. Stockett actually drew on her own experiences growing up in Jacksonville with an African-American maid at home.

"I come home that morning, after I been fired, and stood outside my house with my new work shoes on. The shoes my mama paid a month's worth a light bill for. I guess that's when I understood what shame was and the color of it too. Shame ain't black, like dirt, like I always thought it was. Shame be the color of a new white uniform your mother ironed all night to pay for, white without a smudge or a speck a work-dirt on it."

The book was very alive because of the women's voices, particularly those of Aibileen and Minny, whose colloquial language really jumped from the pages. It almost felt like I was watching a film rather than reading a book. The characters were wonderful and throughout the novel, I was cheering for them on their difficult journey to get the book written and published.

I have only a few gripes about the book. One, throughout the last third of it, Stockett kept scattering different cultural references, mentioning for example, the first time Skeeter hears Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones on the radio or when one of the women uses Shake n' Bake. I thought it was quite forced and a bit annoying. I realise that what she was trying to do was to signify the coming of change in America but  I felt these references were not necessary and were actually a distraction. To top it off, she then informs readers in her afterword that the Bob Dylan song was in reality only released in 1964 and Shake n' Bake hit the shelves in 1965. So what was the point of mentioning such trivial things at all?

Secondly, what was the deal with that naked man? About halfway through the book, some strange white naked guy harasses Minny and her employer at home. They violently defend themselves and send him back into the woods but nothing is ever said about him again. So is that a normal occurrence in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi? I thought that was a weird scene and a strange way to show the strength of those women.

Apart from my gripes above, I also felt that the book could have been shorter. There were quite a few unnecessary scenes and repetitive stories. These flaws however are minor and could have been corrected by a thorough editor. In spite of this, I still think The Help is a great read. It's riveting and compulsively readable. I also have to admit that for a first time author, it's a wonderful debut and Stockett should be proud. She's definitely a writer we should keep our eye on in the future. I do hope she gets a better editor for her next book though.

21 comments:

  1. YAY...so glad this book was a big hit with you as well. It's hard to believe this was her fist book ever. Great Review.

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  2. What an interesting review! You definitely picked out things that most of the rest of us missed!

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  3. You have a good point about the naked man scene, but I thought most of the scenes with Celia were strange.

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  4. Very interesting review-I will read it when I see it in paper back here in Manila-Americans in the middle class by and large no longer have household help-while we in the Philippines do!

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  5. I've heard a lot about this book, but until recently I didn't feel compelled to pick it up. Aarti's review, and now yours, convinced me. I especially like what you said about their voices feeling so alive.

    I don't mind pop culture references in books, but they have to be done right or else they feel out of place.

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  6. I've heard many good things about this book - yours is the first review to raise some reservations and I trust your opinion so now I am not as overly keen to read it as I was. This is on my library list, to get when I get my TBR pile under a bit better control!

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  7. @Denise - Celia was a really sad character. I felt sorry for her most of the time.

    @Nymeth - that's just it...I thought the cultural references were not done well plus she readily admitted in her afterword that she mentioned things that hadn't actually happened yet and placed them all in 1962 and 1963.

    @booksnob - I still think the Help is a great read. That's a good idea to get it from the library instead of purchasing it.

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  8. The excerpt from the book piqued my interest. Seems Stockett has a good writing style. I shall be on the lookout for this book. Thanks for the post!

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  9. Thanks for the review. I have a couple of friends who are always looking for a book club recommendation. I will remember this one. How strange that the author would reference things that hadn't happened yet, realize it, but just mention it in the afterward rather than fix it.

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  10. I appreciate your honest review, though I think I would still have to read this for myself. I have heard mixed feelings on it, and I think I may enjoy it.

    Great post!

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  11. I'm glad you enjoyed this one. I have it on my soon-to-be-read list. I too am irritated by misplaced and overused pop culture references. The quote you slected and your descriptions of the characters make this one sound like a wonderful debut.

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  12. Great review! For some reason, I didn't think the naked man thing was really out of context. I am not sure why... :-) It seemed like a bond of sisterhood at the time. And I didn't notice the 60s cultural references, either, except for the Bob Dylan one. But now that you mention them, I can see what you mean.

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  13. I've only heard glowing praise for this book, so I actually appreciated you taking the time to discuss some of the things that didn't work for you in this one. It's definitely one I intend to try, but I am glad that my expectations might be more appropriately tempered. Pop culture references don't generally bug me, if they're done in a way that feels organic to the story, but in other cases they can be really jarring... I wonder how I'll feel about this one!

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  14. I have been seeing and hearing quite a bit about this book lately, yours is a particularly helpful review, insightful and informative, I might also get this one from the library.

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  15. Hm, now that I think about it, the whole naked man scene was a bit random, although I did like the way it showed the relationship between Celia & Minny. And I completely agree that the narratives of Minny & Aibileen were highlights of the novel - Skeeter got on my nerves a bit though. Glad you liked it!

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  16. Mrs B: I just picked this up tonight at my book club. And I told them about your Elinor Lipman interview. They were duly impressed.

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  17. I really enjoyed this book (it was one of my top ten for last year) but take note of your gripes - I concur with the naked man scene! I found it engaging and it kept my interest - enough for me to wonder (and hope) if there is a sequel coming as Stockett kept the ending quite open to following Skeeter a bit more into the future, I thought.

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  18. @thelilwitch - this is great for a book club read. I'm sure it will generate a lot of discussion.

    @fredamans - It's a very entertaining book. I'm sure you'll like it.

    @Steph - I wonder what you'll feel about the Help too. I think you'll enjoy it.

    @Thomas - Wow, thanks. I'm still thrilled that she agreed to do it. I found a beautiful copy of My Latest Grievance in a bargain bin yesterday in a hardcover edition. Looking forward to it. Can't wait to read your review of The Help.

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  19. I have had reservations about reading this book because I adored "The Sectret Life of Bees" and have the idea that anything written in a similar fashion about the late 50's/early 60's, southern USA and sisterhoods just won't come close to it. Having said that the majority of reviews I have read about The Help have been mostly positive, so I'm interested to hear that you have a couple of reservations.
    It would really bug me too if an author put cultural references into a story then wrote a disclaimer about them afterwards - what's the point of that?
    Yep, it's now off my "If I Come Across It At A Bargain Price" List. I have too many books on that list anyway.
    Thanks for a great review, Mrs B.

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  20. Hi, Mrs. B! I've always been curious about this book, as I've been seeing it in the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks now. But judging from your review, I think I'll just wait for the paperback edition. Thanks for posting your review, Mrs. B!

    Don't you think we're in for a very long and hot summer?

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  21. Perhaps a different editor would have been helpful, but don't assume that this book's editor didn't point out the "shortcomings" (mistakes?) you dislike. Stockett may well have vetoed changing them.

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