Book review: ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett

At work, I’m fortunate to have a close friend — and avid fellow reader — in my officemate, Sandy. Whenever I’m done with a novel I think closely matches her tastes, I’m quick to drop it off with her. And in turn, Sandy often leaves hardcovers in my office with Post-It notes saying “Enjoyed it! Thanks!” or “Read this one!”

Walking in recently, Sandy turned to me with wild eyes and raised eyebrows. “I’m reading a book . . .” she began, as she often does. “Have you heard of this one?”

In one deft movement, she pulled a copy of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help from a totebag and showed it to me like a prize. I told her no, I hadn’t read it, but I purchased a copy with some Christmas money after seeing the novel on countless “Best Of 2009” lists. It was sitting on my shelf with more than a hundred other novels, waiting to be opened and discovered by yours truly.

“You have to read it,” she told me firmly. “It’s . . . you just have to read it.”

Delighted that I would have someone to chat about the book with live and in person (not that I don’t love you folks!), I set aside everything else I was reading last week and picked up the hefty tome. Coming in at more than 400 pages, The Help was a novel that intrigued me — but I was scared to start it, feeling like I’d be weighed down by the heavy subject matter and the tons of pages.

I needn’t have feared a thing.

With family dilemmas, dates, shopping and other activities taking up most of my Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I still managed to finish this entire book in one weekend. That basically required me to carry it with me everywhere I went, something I gladly did, and to scan the pages with any snippet of time I had. By Sunday evening, the pacing had reached such a fever that I simply could not stop reading . . . just as Sandy had warned me.

“Once you hit the final 100 pages,” she said before leaving the office, “make sure you have enough time to actually finish it.”

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Stockett’s novel — a debut so exquisite, I really find it hard to believe we don’t have any other spines bearing her name on bookshelves. There’s no way I could summarize it and I don’t want to try, so I’ll cheat — just this once! — and share the publisher’s description:

Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women — mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends — view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don’t.

Sounds great, right? Right.

I identify so much with Skeeter that it’s shocking, right down to her burning desire to become a published writer and her feelings of in-between-ness. Her love affair was like a sock to the stomach, swift and surprising in the way that it affected me. I loved the calculated way in which she fought the system, her tenacity to continue with a project she knew could mean imminent ruin for so many people. And while I was sometimes frustrated by her lack of understanding and irresponsibility (the satchel, anyone?), she was a believable, fully-drawn woman.

The book alternates between view points, dropping us in and out of Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter’s minds from section to section. Though I adored all three women for very different reasons, my favorite was probably Minny. She was outspoken in a time when such a thing was a terrible liability; she possessed a great inner strength that kept her moving forward and optimistic, even though she sometimes pretends to be a hardened, cold woman. (She’s totally not.) In short, I loved her.

The Help broke my heart — then healed it. For as heavy as the subject of race relations is, I often found myself laughing — sometimes at the absurdity of things like Hilly’s “proposal” to create separate bathrooms in the homes of all white families, so the “diseases” of the black workers wouldn’t spread to white bottoms. Sometimes at the hilarity of Minny’s narration and unique phrasing, the way she calls her employer Celia a “fool” — but you know that’s a sincere form of affection. And sometimes — sometimes — just laughing at the fact that 50 short years ago, this is the way things were in many parts of the country. That this was acceptable. That people didn’t question this. Right here . . . in the United States of America.

That blows my mind.

I could talk about this book all day, and if you’re interested? Stop by and see me. We can. Suffice it to say that I really did laugh, cry and frantically flip my way through it, hoping against hope that it never actually had to end. The suspense of the story was incredible — this feeling of anxiety and nervousness that kept me reading page after page, hoping that everything would turn out all right. I fell in love with every character — except that psychotic witch Hilly — and wanted to reach in and . . . what? Help them? I don’t know. Be with them.

An important novel that tackles Major Issues that still manages to be entertaining, lively, affecting and unbelievably moving? It’s a rare find, friends, and it gets my absolute highest recommendation. If you don’t already have a copy of The Help sitting on your bookshelf, it’s about time you grabbed one. And if yours is languishing in the stacks, just as mine was? Pluck it out of obscurity and set a weekend aside. I think you’ll be glad you did.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0439899281 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

23 thoughts on “Book review: ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett

  1. I was late to work the day I finished this book. I just could NOT put it down. Your review of it put mine to absolute shame. As we talked about it on twitter, I mentioned that the ending left me hanging a little, but in all, such a superb book.

    I cannot believe Stockett hasn’t written more books!


  2. I loved this book too!! I have very few people to talk about books with in real life, haha. There is my sister, but she doesn’t read nearly as much as I do.


  3. My mother recently read this and loved it, telling me to read it. Since you reminded me, I just requested it from the library…

    I am number 153 in the queue…who says people in DC don’t read 😉


  4. What an exquisite review.

    I too have a friend in real life – also avid reader like us – who recommended this book to me. I am number 23 on the wait list for the book from the library. From everything I’ve heard and read – I may just have to cancel my hold and purchase this book.


  5. I have requested this one from the library and am glad to know that you loved it as well. Our tastes tend to run to fairly similar books, so I know that I’ll love it!


  6. OK OK! I’ll read it already. lol This and so many other glowing reviews are weighing heavy on my conscience. Plus, I’ve liked the last two books I read so much it’s been hard to pick up a new one. This might be just the ticket.


  7. This is on my list of books to read this year. A friend of mine purchased it and couldn’t get past page 100, so another co-worker is reading it and then it’s my turn. Excellent review!


  8. meg,
    i also loved this book and gave it as christmas gifts to a few of my family members who love to read. i recommend it without hesitation when people ask me what they should read.

    the entire civil rights movement amazes me to this day. as children, my sister and i would spend hours flipping through a giant Life magazine hardcover book that my parents had. there were several images that are burned into my memory–several from birmingham, al when the police and fire departments turned dogs and hoses on to the blacks.

    my father would try to explain what was happening in the images but it was so anathema to how we grew up that i just couldn’t reconcile it.

    last summer, anthony and i visited the civil rights museum in memphis and it was outstanding–depressing that our country has to have such a museum but very educational.

    anyway, sorry to ramble. glad you enjoyed this book. xoxo


  9. I have not heard a bad thing about this book and yet yours is the first review that has actually made me want to read this one Meg! I will have to seek it out – I think it is also on the longlist for the Orange Prize??


  10. Fine oh fine. I keep seeing great reviews for this and I say yes I’m going read it…in a couple weeks but you’ve convinced me. I guess I’ll have to go buy it this weekend. Oh bother. Another awesome book I’ll have to read.


  11. Wow Meg, great review! It seems most bloggers have read and loved it, and I am incredibly interested by it. The topic is an important one, too. I’ll have to come back and talk about it with you once I read it! 🙂


  12. This is the best review I’ve seen so far of this book. It’s already on my list (if only I could get it from the library faster!) but now I’m even more excited to read it!


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  14. I’m so glad you finally read this fantastic book – and that you loved it too! I can’t wait until Stockett writes another book but this will be hard to top.


  15. Great review! I finished it first thing on Friday morning; I read about 200 pages late into the the night/early hours of the morning and left the last fifty pages for when I woke. I couldn’t put it down and those last fifty pages were only because there was a certain resolution, which allowed me to leave it for sleep without hanging on.

    Such an engaging read; I miss books that fully immerse me in the way The Help did, when I can think of nothing else or do nothing else but read it.


  16. I loved this book also. I listened to the audio version. Four differnt women read the story. I loved hearing there voices bringing these amazing women to life.


  17. Pingback: The Help by Kathryn Stockett | Bevs Bookstore

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