Thursday, July 18, 2013

Liked, But Didn't Love

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett
Published by Amy Einhorn Books
3 Out of 5 Stars

**A few mild spoilers**

I liked this book. I really did. But here's the problem: I wanted to LOVE it. And, maybe, if I had read it before all of the hype, I would have. As it stands, I can only say that it was entertaining, but unexceptional.

Set in Mississippi circa the 1960's, the story focuses on three women: Skeeter, a white woman from a wealthy family who dreams of becoming a writer; Abileen, an intelligent black maid (with a closet love of reading and writing) who happens to work for one of Skeeter's friends; and Minny, a spitfire who has trouble keeping her mouth in check around the white women for whom she works, putting her at odds with another of Skeeter's friends. The narrative is told, in alternating points of view, by these three women who begin meeting in secret to write an anonymous book about what it's like to work as a black maid in Mississippi. 

The book is funny, never veering too far off into heart-warming territory, and captures the dividing lines between race and class in the South. The characters are likable and the message is clear, but not overly didactic. And yet, there were a few things that bugged me enough to keep me from giving it a 4 star:

A) Other than a half-hearted stab at dialect, there's little to differentiate the voices of these three women. They have radically different backgrounds and personalities, but these differences seem "told" rather than "shown" in a truly distinctive voice for each character. 

B) The character of Skeeter goes through a transformation toward the end of the book and becomes a hippie. The catalyst: hearing Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changing and buying a mini-skirt. That seemed a sloppy and shorthand way of communicating a radical shift in values and perspectives. As a result, I just couldn't buy what Stockett was selling in terms of Skeeter.

C) What happened to the naked guy that Celia beat the holy living shit out of? The police never found him, despite the fact that he was last seen running through the woods with an unhinged jaw and what was apparently quite an impressive member in his hand. Bizarre.

D) Despite the fact that all of this took place during a particularly race-charged time period when blacks were beaten, lynched, etc. for crossing racial barriers, you never really feel like these women are in palpable danger. Even toward the end, things work out a little too neatly for them. Stockett pulled her punches, though she is to be commended for writing about the violence done to others during that time period. 

Final analysis: I liked it, I would recommend it, and I would read another of her books. 

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