penny in a castle

A digital chapbook.

Is “The Help” Worth the Hype?

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(Nota: There may be some spoilers in here if you haven’t read the book. Read at your peril).

Almost two years ago, my mom loaned me her copy of The Help by Kathryn Stockett.  Between life getting in the way and reading a little bit of this and that of the other thing, it took me quite a while to get around to reading it over the past winter.  By that point, there had already been a movie made (which I haven’t seen, but it was nominated for and won several awards) and a lot of hype had already passed under the bridge.

So I really had high expectations for this book – and it really isn’t fair to put so much pressure on a piece of literature – particularly for a debut novelist.

However, I had real problems getting into this novel, which may help explain why it took me months to finish it.  While the main narrative of the story – black nurses and housemaids (“the help”) telling their stories at enormous personal risk to a white wanna-be feminist journalist during the 1960s in Jackson Mississippi – is absolutely riveting, many of the side stories take away from the central heart of the novel.  Telling the various back stories of these side narratives take up so much space that it seems like an eternity before the actual action starts to happen.

After several attempts to read the first few chapters, I finally fell into the more compelling parts of the story, and the tempo of the plot increased enough to make me want to continue reading, and even had moments where it was difficult to put down.

By the time I had finished, I felt I had read something that could have been profound, but it was undone by flaws that would make it difficult for me to bury under the hype.

To begin, the plot foreshadows later key plot points much too obviously. It’s almost as if the author is yelling at the reader saying “pay attention here, this will be important later.”  For example, the pie, the “terrible awful” that the story hinges on just seems to take too long a distasteful joke to get to – by the end, there seemed little pay off.

In other places, parts of the plot don’t seem to conclude at all or have too happy endings.  On the forgotten end is Celia – she just appears to fade towards the end although I think she could have had a more active role in pulling strings together on Minny’s narrative.  I also believe that Skeeter’s mother’s miraculous cancer cure was a little unbelievable – almost as real as the snake oil “Shinalator” that fixes Skeeter’s impossible hair.

There are parts of the story such as the side narrative of Stuart, the failed romance for Skeeter, that I think could have been done away with altogether. It really didn’t add anything to the story and it wouldn’t have ruined it to cut it out. Although, to the author’s credit, she doesn’t turn this thread into a Disney happy-ever-after wedding for Skeeter.  Another character I could not seem to get a handle on was Celia – other than to give Minny a job and a foil, what was her real point? This seemed particularly evident when her story seemed to unravel into a vanishing point at the end.

Some of the key characters are difficult to like or feel empathy for.  The three person narrative is a wonderfully creative way to tell the story.  However, I cringed each time “Skeeter’s” part was taken up because she was the least likable or engaging.  It must have been difficult to be a budding feminist with a controlling mother in the 1960s, and lowest on the totem of small town socialites, but did she need to be so naive and wishy-washy?  While she seemed to yearn for something bigger, she still seemed to crave acceptance more.  There was a part of me that couldn’t blame Miss Stein for wanting to chew her up with the rest of the scenery.

I also came away from the novel with a whiff of disrespect for stay at home mothers.  Maybe I’m over exaggerating it, but the working woman – whether it be “the help” or the novice writer – seems to be held in higher esteem by the author than the dreaded Betty Friedan stereotypical mother trapped at home taking care of her children – or more likely abusing them in their frustration.

There are some real gems within the novel.  The notion that white women have special sharp “instruments” of cruelty I thought rang especially true – even in this day and age I thought of how people can use very subtle machinations to hurt people deeply from a safe distance.  Queen bees and social bullies have not come such a long way after all, and in the end, may prove to be sadly eternal.

In some ways, more interesting than the book itself was a note from the author – which happened to be included at the end of my borrowed paperback edition (but may not have been included in others). She wrote about her experience as a white child in the South of the US, and her experiences with her family’s “help”.  She raised the question on whether or not it would be possible for a white person, to write realistically from a black perspective about this moment in history.  This note was a powerful admission by the author that rang honest and true.

I think in the end, the author mostly succeeded in catching the atmosphere and fear of the times with the narrative of Aibileen.  Her character is the saving grace of this book. Perhaps if the entire book had been written from Aibeleen’s perspective I would have enjoyed the novel more. (Although, I do admit, Minny had her moments of strength and hilarity – beaten but not bowed as she was.)

In Aibileen’s voice, you catch a glimpse of how terrifying it all really was.  Of the danger of their shared secret.  Of how it felt to raise children who would grow up to hate you simply because of the colour of your skin.  Of how heartbreaking it all could be.  In her last chapter, when she resigns from taking care of children and commits herself to a new life journey, you can almost hear Aibileen echoing Martin Luther King, Jr. “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.”

Final verdict: A slow start, but ends up a good read. Not sure it was worth the hype.  If you are going to buy it, I would recommend paperback, then loan it to someone else. I plan to check out the movie sometime.

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Written by pennyinacastle

March 26, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Posted in books

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