Thursday, October 21, 2010

I Really Should Stop Judging Popular Books Before I Read Them

Book Reviewed: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

I have a tendency to judge books that spend long periods of time on the New York Times Bestseller list. I just have a bad gut reaction to things that are popular, I guess. So when it was decided that I would run a book discussion group for my library branch and The Help was the chosen book, I wasn't particularly happy. Kathryn Stockett's debut novel has been high on the bestseller list for about a year and a half now, so I wasn't sure I'd like it. Also, a particularly annoying blurb on the back from a New York Times critic said, "Book clubs with hankies will talk and talk." Gross. Now that I've finished the book, I'd like to punch whoever in Stockett's publishing/marketing team decided to put that blurb on the back. Because it kind of comes off as an insult, one this book doesn't deserve.

Maybe this book makes people cry. I didn't. I thought Stockett handled the story so deftly and with such restraint that she kept it from being emotionally overwhelming. In fact, it was her ability to stay away from overly-emotional language and scenes that made me like this book so much. And I really liked it quite a bit. It's officially time for me to stop judging popular novels.

There's a reason this book has been the number-one book club pick of the last year. With themes about racism, the lives of women, friendship, and societal expectations, it really hits on big, deep themes. I was skeptical of this book's ability to handle a touchy subject - the inner lives of white women and their black domestic help - without veering into sentimentality. So Stockett's strong writing and world-building really surprised and delighted me.

The book is centered around three main characters: black maids Aibileen and Minny and a young, white woman nicknamed Skeeter who grew up with her own beloved black maid. Stockett based the book very closely on her own experiences of growing up in Jackson, Mississippi. The book takes place in the early 1960s, before integration. Skeeter, who wants to be a journalist, decides to write a book about the experiences of African-American domestic workers. She's surprised by the sad and even horrific stories she hears, although she finds out the life of a black Southern woman is more nuanced than she ever thought. Aibileen (who is really the heart of the book) and Minny help her and get their own viewpoint chapters as well. Because segregated Jackson is such a dangerous place to live for both African-Americans and integration-sympathisers, the writing of the book provides a lot of tense drama for the book's plot.

Knowing what the book was about and it's format regarding these three first-person points of view, I wasn't expecting a particularly invigorating take on a subject that has had its fair share of past literary approaches. However, by making the book take place solely in the world of women, Stockett made all the themes feel fresh and provocative. The few men in the book live so far in the background that they're basically nonexistent, except when they are presenting obstacles in the lives of women. Otherwise, this is a book about the differences and the similarities between privileged white women and poor black women. Skeeter's best friend while growing up, Hilly Holbrook, ends up being the book's villain, but even she has her quasi-redeeming moments. No one is cartoonishly bad in this book, but no one's a saint either. Likable characters are still capable of great bitterness or naivety. Hateful characters can be good mothers or loving friends at times. Each narrator - Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter - comes with a complex world of backstory and problems and side characters. The world of the novel is so fully-realized that I couldn't help but get excited over every tiny new development in the book. Also, it was a relief to read a book presenting strong women with complicated inner lives and no romantic pairings. I have my doubts about the last fifty pages or so, but Stockett is a very talented writer who I definitely hope to see more of in the future.

I'm really looking forward to discussing this book in a few weeks at the library. I think its combination of big themes, swift characterization, and avoidance of sentiment or easy promises really does make it the perfect book club pick.


  1. I'm so glad you liked this book! It's on my list to read; a couple of folks in my readers' advisory class were talking about it and it sounds good.

  2. I tend to stay away from popular books and movies too. It really depends on whose opinion I hear. If so-and-so really liked the book then it really must not be that good of a book.