M's Reviews > The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
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's review
Aug 17, 2009

it was ok

While in many ways this book deserves at least three stars, I found the overall execution and so many important pieces to be disappointing (all the more so given the book's potential).
The novel starts out with so much promise - Stockett utilizes thick dialect for her southern maids (though not, for whatever reason, for the white women) so that from the first page you are plunged into a world and get lost in it quickly.
Aibileen, the first speaker, is appealing and true to life - she is a maid for a spoiled, reluctant mother who prefers to have Aibileen raise her child, and Aibileen truly embodies the resigned black maid who has come to accept her situation and not ask questions.
Too quickly, though, the book takes a sharp turn and plummets steadily into mediocrity. IN essence, the book's narrative splits between Aibileen, another maid, Minny, who is sassy and entertaining, and then a white girl, Skeeter, who is going to save the day. For some reason that I cannot fathom, the maids' narrative are a lot more, well, colorful (sorry) in that they have personality and are fairly well sketchec, while Skeeter is a thinly drawn woman with no actual attributes. SHe emerges as the heroine of the book, for she begins to feel that what's going on around her is wrong and chooses to write an expose using the maids' stories to turn events around, yet she has no actual strength of character aside from the plot. Her narrative grates on you; she is passive until the author decides she should be active, and she is a plot device rather than a person in her own right.
Not only does Skeeter not carry the book, but Stockett - very early on - sketches a world of staunch black and white (ha ha - ok I have to stop) whereby the good and bad people are neatly drawn. All those woman who have maids? They are baaaaad. They mistreat their children, they are nasty to their friends, they are rich southern women who think they own the world. Amazingly, none of them are nice. I was under the impression that everyone had maids and was pro slavery back then in the south, not just the nasty people. Stockett, who grew up in Jackson herself, writes this so apologetically that it ends up inciting the opposite feelings from me than what she intended. Because there is no complexity - no white women are sympathetic, all the black women are downtrodden and martyrish - I end up looking for reasons to root for the white women out of sheer response to such an extreme and rather juvenile perspective. It is far more interesting, after all, to read about people who did things we disagree with yet are presented in a light that makes them real and understandable. I always prefer reading about a Nazi who is also someone's father, son, husband etc than to only see people cast as the enemy through and through. Skeeter herself, who has to be good since she saves the day, is actually really annoying- she has no actual features, she snaps at her mother all the time (but that is ok, because her mother is one of the mean white women, so she is SUPPOSED to do that), and few times if ever do you see her endeavor as more than just her wanting to write a book and this being the idea that sells.
Stockett's other unfortunate move is the length of this work. It is so very freaking long. As I have said so many times, why? Why is that necessary? It drags in several places, especially givne the one dimensional angle of the tale, and she then tries to take on far too much. This maid has an abusive husband, this white lady has depression, Skeeter has love problems, yammer yammer yammer. Surely the whole notion of writing about post slavery slavery from the black women's POV was enough? It would have been for me. I got so lost in the story, and not in a good way.
Then Stockett shows her ODing on movies - she decides to weave about seven different 'there is a big secret here but I am NOT TELLING' into the story, which after a while just got old, especially when, just as its about to be revealed, oh! someone just walked in. Her tactics got old, fast, as they are hackneyed and gimmicky. She paints scene fresh out of hollywood so they are not fresh at all (one by one, a maid stands up and says to Skeet, I's gawn a help ya with yo book' after she lost hope thinking the book would never happen (again, was the issue now she cant help the maids, or now she can't help herself?).
This work could have been so good - had she simplified the ploit twists and strengthened her characters. Lose Skeeter altogether - she does nothing for the story - and have one of the maids write the expose. Make the white women actually be sympathetic - lots of people felt this way about people of color, and I bet they still managed to be good people.
While it was at times a decent read, it fell into being a teen movie with a heavy premise that didn't match up. A real disappointment.
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Reading Progress

August 17, 2009 – Shelved
September 13, 2009 –
0.0% "So far this is fantastic!"
September 15, 2009 –
0.0% "Sigh. WHat a bummer. If I am able to finish it, I will be ripping this to pieces. And if I don't."
Started Reading
September 16, 2009 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-12)

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message 12: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K I actually have this on my Amazon wish list -- it has a high average rating from something like 600+ readers. Hopefully it will be less disappointing than "Harmony" apparently was.

message 11: by M (new) - rated it 2 stars

M Blech. Stupid Harmony. Yea I saw it on Amazon when I typed in the title you sent me - I think Amazon recs might be the way to go for a while - my hope is if I keep a to read list I will have titles to remember for when I hit the library.

message 10: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K Always check the average rating and how many reviews it's based on, bearing in mind that they're likely to be a bit inflated on Amazon (I have a paranoid theory that Amazon workers write fake inflated reviews to boost ratings), which is why I also check goodreads. This may sound like a lot of effort, but I got into doing that because I actually have to pay for anything I read here.

message 9: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K Great! Can't wait to hear about it...

message 8: by M (new) - rated it 2 stars

M It better beat Perfection. Not that it would take much ...

message 7: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K Yeah, sounded pretty crappy.

message 6: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K Great review. It's such a shame when books with potential end up nose-diving into one-dimensionality, especially when they're so hyped and you come with great expectations.

message 5: by Yoch (new)

Yoch okay marg- ussually i agree and even if dont i never have the guts to disagree because ultimatly - youre better at this than me. But - i did not think this was as dismal as you make it out to be- i love the black women and yeah- southern white women are in a class of their own- the same way we can lump the way Breslevers live their lives and feel that there is no real individuality in their avodah because lets face it they are all a little kooky (sorry-i know live and let live)southern women are unique- thier evelutionary process is supremely different than all other american experiences-- trust me on this - i am a limudei chol teacher after all- the mentality of the south, supremesits by nature, the wealth of plantation life, the ego of the confederacy, the slave industry that built america-- all these things lead to a unique genre of american women-- so i think they were potrayed fairly- as for skeeter-- yeah shes vapid- but i think she was an efficient tool to show how the modern intergration mvmt made its slowwww descent to the south- and yeah her book took a long time- bc thats indicative of how long the the civil rghts mvmnt took. But skeeters vapidness didnt bother -- what bothered me mostky was minny and her big horriblr thing- who the hell cares. just tell it to me already so i can move on- the book took a looong time to tell the story. But i belive her portrayal of each sect was spot on.
so yeah two stars not cuz it was bad but because it wasnt great.
phew- i never do this - i need a nap now.

message 4: by M (new) - rated it 2 stars

M You make good points - in truth I know very little of that time, as much as I just love, in general, when stories have blurred lines as to who is right, who is wrong. I would have loved to have seen the white women portrayed more complexly as that would have created a lot more conflict. Maybe in something as one sided as racism that's not really necessary, but as a reader it makes for a better book, for me.
Totally agreed re - Minnie, I felt that a lot, and in general - oh Skeeter blah blah my fiancee but I can't tell you/what happened to Constantine, can't tell you/why can't she tell her husband about Minnie cleaning the house/ etc etc etc ... it got tiresome. Anyway in general I like shorter unless necessary, not (just) because of my ADD but because less tends to be more in fiction.
Bottom line, people read for different things - I am much more into character than just about anything else, so if that isn't work then, for me, nothing is.

message 3: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K I didn't read the book, but of course that doesn't stop me from butting in -- as I was reading your discussion, I kept thinking of "Gone with the Wind," which, I felt, was a more sympathetic and human portrayal of Southern slave-owning white women. I'm sure that Yoch's points about the South being its own culture and how that permeates are accurate, but that said, it sounds like a more sympathetic and three-dimensional depiction of the Southern white women was possible and would have made this a better book. A good author can make us at least understand, if not sympathize with, all kinds of people -- if Nabokov could make me see Humbert Humbert as quasi-human, surely Stockett could have made the Southern women out to be people with strengths and weaknesses rather than slave-driving demons. Anyway, like I said, I didn't read the book so I can't really join the discussion from a well-informed place but those are my 2 cents anyway.

message 2: by M (new) - rated it 2 stars

M I never got through all of Gone With the Wind, but I guess it comes down to what the author's intentions were. Since she herself (Stockett) had a Mammy growing up I think this book was borne out of a lot of guilt and tension over having accepted something as fine that really wasn't, which I suppose a lot of Southerners are guilty of (though in truth that in itself is a complicated matter - ie, would I have been any different) - I think her intentions here were to depict the extent of how bad it could get for the maids and how pervasive this was so as to fully celebrate anyone willing to make a difference. Whereas if I were writing this, I would take the approach of trying to paint a humane image of the white folk rather than just the black. It would interest me more, but that's why I would do it. So for a reader who is more interested in the issue itself, the context etc, versus someone who is more focused on the fictional people, I guess that is where the difference lies. She wasn't looking to make us be confused as to who to root for, that would've killed her premise. so she was successful for what she set out to do, but reading is like testing for allergies - in the end it's more about how you react than what the author had in mind, I think.

message 1: by K (new) - rated it 3 stars

K You know, I wonder whether the two goals are really mutually exclusive -- the goal of depicting the difficult lives of the maids with the goal of creating multifaceted characters. Ideally, I think a book should be able to do both. But maybe not; after all, having a didactic or philosophical agenda kills a book in my opinion, and this might be an example of that.

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