Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

First off, I found The Help quite enjoyable.  Mind you, for me, "enjoyable" and "good" aren't always the same.  Take Twilight for instance.  As most of you know I'm a HUGE fan (I even have a "Team Alice" T-shirt).  I gave high ratings to all the books in that series, specifically because I found them immensely enjoyable.  Good?  Not so much.  Stephenie's writing is pretty average, she has a strange way of structuring the plot, you REALLY have to suspend disbelief at times, she's not always internally consistence with regard to the rules she has established for her world, the list goes on and on.  Sometimes a book is just soooo... fun... I'm able to let all the other stuff go.  Other times all I can see are the flaws.  It's not really fair, but it is what it is.

The Help was not only enjoyable, it was good too.  I almost gave it five stars, but in the end, I had some minor issues that kept me from doing so.  I'm not much into historical fiction (this counts as historical fiction, right?) but this book was definitely worth my time. It's been a while since I've read anything as conventional as The Help.  Except for the occasional blip, I've primarily read Young Adult, Paranormal Romance, and Urban Fantasy for the last couple of years.  This being the case, The Help feels much more "serious" than what I've become accustomed to.  As a result, I found the few flaws I encountered harder to ignore.

Taking place in the early 60's, this book chronicles how three very different women come together to tell the story of what it means to be a black servant in white southern society. Having completed her degree at Ole Miss, "Skeeter" a young, white  woman returns to Jackson only to discover that Constantine, the black woman, who for all intents and purposes raised her, has left the employ of her family under mysterious conditions.  Skeeter quickly becomes disenchanted with the actions of her socialite friends and decides to tell the stories, both good and bad, of the colored women serving white families in the South.  Aibileen, a wise and compassionate woman of color who has raised 17 white children over the course of her life, is recovering from the death of her son and eventually agrees to help.  The pair enlist the assistance of Minny, a fiesty and temperamental black woman recently black listed from work in white homes by the Slander of Hilly Holbrook, apparent queen bee in Jackson, friend and former school mate of Skeeter.

Kathryn employs the split narrative to tell this story.  As recently discussed in my review of Linger, I don't really like the use of split narrative, but I think it was not only extremely effective in this book, but also necessary for this story to be told at all.  The differences in perspective are essential to the story and Kathryn does a marvelous job with them.  Each character used to move the plot forward (Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny) is likeable and, just as importantly, relateable each in her own way.

The Help, feels well researched.  That is, for the most part, the deep south of the early 60's seemed authentic to me, tho I have no particular expertise in this area.  Kathryn uses historical events (National Guard deployment to Ole Miss, the murder of Medgar Evers, etc.) to help sustain the atmosphere and the relevancy of her protagonists' project. Throughout the book, I felt the danger and the tension that must accompany an undertaking of the type these three courageous women embarked on.  This is a strength through most of the book, but created a kind of weakness near the end.  See the spoiler for more details.

» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

While I wasn't particularly bothered by them, there were some scenes in this book that surprised me for their crass natures and others that were more graphic than I would have expected from this type of book.  If you have a low tolerance for the gross, take into account that there may be some rough spots in this book for you.

As I'm sure you're aware, Hollywood has gotten a hold of this book.  In fact, I would probably never have read it if it weren't for the movie.  The preview for it is somewhat misleading with regard to the content of the story which is odd because all the scenes in the previews come from the book.  Their arrangement, however, makes the movie appear lighter than it actually is.  Having seen only the preview before reading the book, I was somewhat taken off guard (not in a bad way) by the heaviness of the story.

I'm a big fan of Emma Stone and loved seeing her play a role so very different from what I'm used to seeing her in.  But don't be fooled.  This is NOT a comedy; it has real emotional weight (think Steel Magnolias or Fried Green Tomatoes).  It had some funny moments but this was a faithful representation of the book.  I would have prefered that Celia's portion in the movie had been handled better, but I understand the limitations that the movie had to operate under.  I highly recommend this story in both its literary and motion picture formats.


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