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