Monday, July 13, 2009

The Help A Pitch-Perfect Southern Masterpiece



It's a well-established fact that I need another book like I need a hole in the head. Still, walking into a bookstore makes me feel all tingly inside. That new-book smell, those glossy covers, and the stories - oh, the stories just waiting to be read. I know I don't have to explain. You're bookworms. You understand. At any rate, when I walked into the BYU Bookstore last week, I saw that Kathryn Stockett's debut novel, The Help, was on sale for 25% off. I've been coveting this book for awhile now, but a brand new hardback isn't exactly cheap, so I've been resisting the urge to buy it. Even with the discount, it was insanely expensive, but I broke down and bought it anyway. I just couldn't help myself. (Funny enough, when my MIL saw my purchase, she just laughed. She'd nearly finished her copy from the library, and had been planning to pass it on! Ah well.) While I regretted parting with that much money, I have to say, the more I read, the happier I became with my exorbiant purchase - The Help is one of those luscious books that makes you want to savor every delicious word. Having my own copy meant I didn't have to rush.

The Help takes place in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi. For the city's wealthy white women, life flows along in a whirl of bridge games, League meetings, and tennis matches at the club. Black housekeepers tend to their sprawling homes and neglected children, leaving ample time for social outings. On the other side of town, those same housekeepers come home to another round of cooking, cleaning, and child care - this time for their own families. Just as the society women complain about the ineptitude of their "Help," so do the maids complain about their lazy, always critical bosses. A great, invisible line separates the women - a barrier of race, class and culture - that prevents them from realizing just how similar they really are.

Despite being part of the society crowd, Skeeter Phelan has always been different. With her beanpole figure and woefully frizzy hair, she's neither beautiful nor elegant. Her fingers are more comfortable poised over a typewriter than clasped around a teacup. A degree from Ole Miss hasn't gotten her far - she's living on her family's cotton plantation writing a silly housekeeping column for the local newspaper. Sick of the banality of it all, Skeeter longs to do something with her life. She aches to write about something more meaningful than ring-around-the-collar. When she starts investigating the mysterious disappearance of her beloved maid, Skeeter begins asking herself questions she's never pondered before - What is it like to be a black maid working for a white family? Finally, she's found a worthy subject. Her curiosity leads her to a project that will challenge everything she's ever known. In a city already boiling with racial tension, Skeeter's clandestine meetings with local maids are risky, indeed - discovery could mean anything from imprisonment to death. Yet, she forges on, knowing that her purpose is "For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought." However noble her aims, Skeeter's project will be disastrous. And illuminating. In fact, it will change her life - forever.

Told in the voices of Aibileen, a long-suffering maid with a soft spot for children; Minny, her mouthy best friend; and Skeeter, the white woman who gives them the biggest, riskiest opportunity of their lives; The Help is a pitch-perfect Southern masterpiece. It's this funny:

For four days straight, I sit at my typewriter in my bedroom ... On day three, Mother calls up the stairs to ask what in the world I'm doing up there all day and I holler down, Just typing up some notes from the Bible study. Just writing down all the things I love about Jesus. I hear her tell Daddy, in the kitchen after supper, "She's up to something." I carry my little white baptism Bible around the house, to make it more believable. (155)

And this poignant:

"I give her a good hug. I reckon she don't get too many good hugs like this after I go home. Ever so often, I come to work and find her bawling in her crib. Miss Leefolt busy on the sewing machine rolling her eyes like it's a stray cat stuck in the screen door. See, Miss Leefolt, she dress up nice ever day. Always got her makeup on, got a carport, double-door Frigidaire with the built-in icebox. You see her in the Jitney 14 grocery, you never think she go and leave her baby crying in her crib like that. But the help always know" (4).

And this beautiful:

"All my life I'd been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl. But with Constantine's thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe" (63).

If you can't tell, I love this book. I could scour my thesaurus looking for adjectives convincing enough to make you read it, but I think you get the picture. It's a lovely, satisfying novel. Read it. Share it. Recommend it to your book club. I promise you'll never forget it.

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13, for some language, sexual innuendo, some violence and adult situations.

(Book image from Barnes & Noble)

13 comments:

  1. I like how you give it a "if this were a movie" rating. That makes a lot of sense to do it that way. I personally loved this book and gave it a 10 out of 10.

    Great review.

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  2. i love reading your reviews. i will have to check this one out.

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  3. I don't think I've seen a negative review of this one. Maybe I'll have to break down and buy myself a copy, too.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  4. I won this book in a giveaway back in March, read it immediately, and just like you, I loved it, thought it was a great novel. I'm anxious for my daughter to read it so we can talk about it.

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  5. I'm recommending this book to my book club tonight and sadly turning in my library copy today. Great review!

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  6. I have never heard of this book but sounds good. You bought it at Byu bookstore does that mean she is LDS?

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  7. I forgot to mention a couple things about this book, especially if you're going to be discussing it in a book club. Make sure you read the author's note at the end of the novel - Stockett basically says THE HELP is a tribute to the black maid that raised her. Also, if you think Constantine's story is outrageous or unbelievable, check out this story from Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/id/194886/page/1 . If you haven't read the book yet, don't read the article. It's basically a spoiler.

    I'm so glad everybody else loves this book, too.

    Laurel - Luckily, I have a copy! You're welcome to borrow it whenever you'd like.

    Laura H - The BYU Bookstore sells all kinds of books. Authors need not be LDS. Interestingly, it doesn't sell just clean books either - I was surprised by some of the novels they had on display, many of which would definitely be R-rated.

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  8. I read this book (but just haven't published my review yet). It is probably the best book I've read this year.

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  9. I'm so glad you bought your own copy - then I can borrow it! Give me a month or 2 since I'm wanting to go back over the last couple Harry Potters before I see the new movie.

    It was fun to see you in UT!

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  10. Great review. I need to check this one out.

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  11. This sounds like such an amazing book. Every time I see it I am tempted to buy it, but I am waiting for it to come out in paperback. Although after reading your review of the book, I might just splurge and buy it this weekend. Thanks for the great post!!

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  12. Got it from the library. I liked it. I like it was done from the Aibileen and Minny's perceptive. Though there was some serious issues going on in this book, there was so funny ones too. Good book . Thanks for the recommend

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  13. We loved this book too! Great review you did here and I have added the link to ours at http://ourstack.blogspot.com/2010/07/help-by-kathryn-stockett.html

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