Jenn's Reviews > The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
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Jun 17, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: e-book, bought-2011, fiction, novel, read-2011

After all of the reviews and the hoop-la, I went into The Help with certain expectations. I expected spunky characters, funny scenes, a bit of main-character soul-searching, possibly a bit of romance, and a triumph of the human spirit over great odds. I expected these things to happen in predictable, serviceable prose and end with a heart-lifting happy ending.

I was right, and I was wrong. The Help is all of these things, and it's better than these things. Told from three points of view, the book starts in 1962 at the moment when three different women are about to encounter some serious changes and challenges. The first POV character is Aibileen, a smart, gentle African-American maid who works for Miss Elizabeth Leefolt and has raised 17 children all over Jackson, Mississippi, including Mae Mobeley, the Leefolt's baby daughter. In the first chapter, Aibileen serves lunch to Miss Leefolt's bridge club, which includes Miss Hilly Holbrook, Hilly's mother, Miss Walters, and Hilly and Elizabeth's friend, Skeeter Phelan. Aibileen overhears the women discussing Hilly's newest mission: encouraging women to build separate bathrooms on to their homes so that they no longer have to share facilities with their black maids. She feels some fury over this, and then more when Miss Leefolt actually does construct a separate bathroom for Aibileen in the garage -- because no one crosses Hilly Holbrook.

Miss Walters is the approaching-senile employer of Aibileen's best friend, Minny Jackson. Minny, the second point-of-view character, is an outspoken maid who's glad for the job with a woman who's hard of hearing. She loses this job in the worst way possible when the progressively evil Hilly first tries to hire her away, then makes it impossible for her to find another job. Her searches lead her out in the country to the new wife of Hilly's ex-boyfriend, where she starts a job unlike any other she's ever had.

Skeeter Phelan is the other point of view character. Freshly home from Ole Miss, where she earned a diploma but failed, in her mother's eyes, in what should have been her real mission -- to find a husband -- she's casting about for something to do with her time. Though Stockett tries to create her as a character who has faced hardships (she's very tall and doesn't care about fashion, making her a constant target for her mother's sharp criticism), Skeeter really seems to live a life of bored luxury. She finds herself a job as a housekeeping columnist at the newspaper and turns to Aibileen for help with cleaning advice, as she's never cleaned a house in her life.

These three women slowly circle one another and then engage on a new project together, one that has the possibility of endangering all three of them physically, socially, emotionally, and financially.

None of that was particularly surprising; what was surprising was the moment when, about 300 pages into this 442-page book, I had the strong urge to read the last five or six pages before continuing. Stockett puts just enough bad into her book full of uplifting ideals and realizations that I was, for a moment, very concerned for what might happen to these characters. That's a compliment; I became involved enough in every character's story that they became real to me. Stockett's clear, consistent prose creates interesting characters. I enjoyed reading about them.

Now, there are certainly ways that the book was predictable in less positive ways. {SPOILERS AHEAD} I knew this book had to have a happy ending, and it did; the consequences that rained down for the characters were small, distant, or for the best. Skeeter has some of the hardest falls in the book -- the end of an affair, a loss of good opinion (though this isn't drawn out enough) for her mother, the discovery that a beloved old maid has died -- but she ends the book in the brightest place, with the most certain, shining future. In some ways, this is the only way a book like this could end; those who are evil are punished, those who aren't triumph and take strength from that triumph. In some ways, though, this is a disappointment, because it promotes an idea that "things will work out" that just isn't true. It takes some of the pain out of the punches within the book, and the punches Stockett lands against white women should hurt. They don't, here; there's just enough room left in this book for any reader to go through and not recognize any part of her own family history or current self in any but the boldest, bravest characters.

But hey, a happy ending. It's summer. It's nice. It's entertainment. It's going to be a movie, soon, and yeah, I'll watch that with popcorn.
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