Thursday, March 4, 2010

Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

If you know me at all by now, you know I have a love hate relationship with highly raved about books. I feel like I need to have read them to join the conversation but I am also leery of the heaps of praise, knowing that my expectations for the book are likely to be all out of proportion, making for a cranky reading experience. So it was with a little trepidation that I picked this one up for my book club. I am happy to report that it turned out to be a better book than I anticipated and although I am the last one on the planet to read it, I am pleased I did. It is an outstanding book club book and would have kept a more focused group talking for a long time. But we were unfocused partly because we had more people at book club than we've ever had before, which is a testament to the appeal of the book, even if discussion suffered due to a group too unwieldy to be effective.

Told in various different voices, mainly those of the black help to the elite cream of white society in Jackson, Mississippi during the extremely turbulent period of the sixties, this both rings true and reminds us all of the civil rights struggles so recently fought here in the US. Aibileen is maid and child minder to a young couple and their baby girl. She is still reeling from the senseless death of her son and has come to realize in a very visceral way, the value whites placed on a black man's life and death. Her anger and bitterness (very much earned, I might add) have changed her personality and also slightly what she is willing to risk in her position. Through her eyes, we first see the young white matrons and their unmarried friend Miss Skeeter and it's not a very flattering picture. But we get small glimpses that Skeeter is not quite like the others, even if she seems complicit in their casual disregard and racist attitudes.

Skeeter is freshly home from Ole Miss and still unmarried, much to the chagrin of her mother. She has bigger dreams than just settling into the same life her mother and friends are leading but she tries to not rock the boat too badly, dating when she can. As she has yet to "take" with an eligible man, she also finds herself a job writing a homemaker's advice column. Of course, as she has never kept a home, she needs help writing her replies and she turns to Aibileen for help, hoping that one day Aibileen will also feel comfortable enough to tell her what ever happened to her family's long time maid, the woman who raised her, Constantine who disappeared not long before Skeeter graduated and came home. Through her connection to Aibileen and with her own ambitions, Skeeter starts writing a social history of the help, those black women who work for the local white families. She captures the good and the bad of Aibileen's experience and then moves on to other willing participants with Aibileen's help.

Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is the third narrator in the novel. She has been fired and falsely accused of stealing by the daughter of her last employer and is only hired by a woman who is so new and so far beyond the pale of polite society than she has no idea of Minny's reputation. Minny comes to be oddly protective of her seemingly indolent mistress, Celia. She tries to maintain a "proper" distance, foiled at every turn because Celia, of poor white stock who has unwittingly married into the upper crust, has no concept of where those boundaries are and is starved for kindness and friendship. Minny becomes the second maid willing to help Skeeter with her book, despite the fraught times and danger of being identified as having contributed to this rather damning piece of writing.

Stockett has created credible, very real characters here. They are sympathetic and yet flawed. None of them are too good to be true and none of them have the sorts of flaws that are really only assets in disguise. These could be real people in the 60's in Mississippi. The various plot threads wind together nicely, weaving around the main plot carefully. The tension builds as Skeeter's book forms and anxiety over whether she has done these women a disservice, laying them open to recognition increases as the pages turn. The black community too becomes more and more tightly wound as the narrative goes along and Stockett has done a great job showing that the greater civil rights movement, the murders, the disappearances and the injustices, is a cause of this as much as the incendiary book Skeeter is compiling with their compliance. The revelation of the book and the protections surrounding it are masterful and while the book's completion is not the end of the book, it certainly could be as the rest of the novel has a sort of epilogue feel to it. But even if it is an epilogue, Stockett wisely leaves some threads untied and the potential for disaster, so prevalent at the time, intact. This was certainly worth the buzz it earned last year, a quick, engrossing read, despite the length of the book. Book clubs whish haven't already done it will love it and have much to talk about. Lone readers will also devour it, taken back to a time in our recent past that we tend to want to forget. Stockett has brought not only the time but the everyday reality of it to the forefront of our memories again, for which we can only thank her.


  1. I thought I was the last person to read this book. I have the same issue as you do: when I hear so much hype, I get scared. This book has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I'll take the plunge soon, I promise.

  2. I am exactly the same way! When EVERYONE is reading and talking about a certain book, I feel like I'll read it, but I'll wait for all the hype to die down! I haven't read a "bestseller" in a very long time.

  3. I'm glad u enjoyed this one as much as everyone else has seemed to --I loved it.

    I'm addicted to the latest releases for some reason, while my many other books, sit there staring at me unread.

  4. Wasn't this a great story? I love how the author empowered Skeeter, that she 'got away' from both her mother and that awful boyfriend.

    I love how empathetic we could be to The Help because their characters were drawn so well.

  5. I'm glad this book resonated with you, Kristen. I am like you in that I am always a little leery about reading the most raved about book in the blog-0-sphere (which is why it took me so long to finally read The Potato Peel Society book...which I ended up loving although it sat on my TBR stack for more than a year after I got it).

    I loved Stockett's characterizations and the story itself...hope she writes another book soon.

  6. Sounds pretty good - thanks for the review... i haven't read this yet so you are not quite the last one. I agree that when Book clubs get too big it can get harder and harder to have a really good discussion. Great review though, thanks


  7. Nope, you're not the last one! I have the book but haven't read it yet.

    I've been lucky so far in that I've enjoyed the much-raved about books I've read. I'm sure that won't always be the case, as we all have different opinions and tastes.

    Glad to see you like it!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  8. I'm glad to see you enjoyed it too. I just got around to reading it last month.

  9. I am the same way with bestsellers. I wait until the hype dies down before picking them up (usually).

    I won The Help last year and it is still waiting for me to pick it up. I may do it this weekend if I can fit it in between all of my review copies.

  10. What a great review! I love the way you described the character development -- you have such a way with words.

  11. Yeah, I can be a little hesitant to read hyped up books too!

    I did really enjoy the Help though, and am so glad you did as well!

  12. I haven't read this book yet either, so you're definitely not the last one! Glad to hear The Help is one of those hyped books that lives up to every rave review. Now, I just need to get going and read it.

  13. I still haven't read this one and probably won't get to it for awhile, so I think I'll end up in last place. LOL I am glad you enjoyed it despite your reservations, Kristen.

  14. I've also learned to be wary of reading books that have received tons of praise, but I agree that this one definitely deserves it.

  15. Lovely review! Loved this book too when I read it last month. It did make me cry at so many points.


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