Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Help - Kathryn Stockett

Part of my problem is that I'm so completely over Southern American fiction written by women.*  Blame it on the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and their Divine Secrets and their subsequent Bloom.  They accomplished what Anne Rivers Siddons could not, although she came close.  I cracked.  I wolfed down that final praline, packed up, scrambled over that last jasmine bush and  ran off in search of my Inner Yankee Male.

I read The Help because of my Bookleaves book group.  It was a pretty fast read; author Kathryn Stockett knows how to keep a story going.  Although I was racing along, a hum of irritation started up in my bookworm nerve endings and got louder as the novel went on.

This book is The Secret Life of Bees, except inverted.  Both books take place in the early 1960s in the deep South and the Civil Rights movement is starting to catch on.  Three wise black women help Lily, a confused and abused young southern girl in Sue Monk Kidd's book.  In The Help, a wise young southern girl-woman named Skeeter helps three confused and abused black women.  Everyone else is spineless, villainous, prejudiced or crazy in both books. Sometimes, they dip a toe in all those categories like Skeeter's mom and Lily's dad.  Lily and Skeeter both have that thin cutesy, folksy plaintive voice (and so does Daisy Fay from Fannie Flagg's first novel, come to think of it) that drives me dippy.  Nails on the chalkboard. 

Another thing that gave me the fantods was all that hinting.  I don't mind when a writer lets something drop in the first chapter, and I go right over it, um hmm because when she picks it up again at the end, I go Oh yeah...and I feel all smarty and pleased with both the writer and myself.  But I  don't feel smarty and pleased when a hint or an allusion gets dropped again and again AND AGAIN like a big brass spittoon on my bare foot.  I feel like snarling.  I feel as if the writer thinks I'm a dumbass that can't remember 35 pages back.

It would have been bad enough if Stockett had done it once, but she turned her hint bag upside down and shook it like a Polaroid picture.  She hinted repeatedly about:  What Minnie did,  what Skeeter's asshole boyfriend's ex-girlfriend did,  there was that wtf?-ery about Celia and Johnny and finally, the truth about Constantine.**  Everyone in the book sighed and opened and closed their mouths so often when the subject of her disappearance came up that I was reminded of that Zombies song Time of the Season. "Oh come on, spit it out," I grumbled more than once.  When they finally did, it was usually a letdown.

One last thing:  Stockett did her research for The Help.  She carefully, meticulously researched her time period.  I know it because I crashed into a historical or cultural reference every time I turned the page.  JFK.  Medgar Evers.  To Kill A Mockingbird.  Bob Dylan.***  The Surgeon General on smoking.  Tabs on beer cans.  It felt like too much furniture in the room.

So, after all that bitching and carping, I have to admit that I'm going to try and catch the movie version when it comes out in August.  I'm a little disappointed that Aibileen isn't being played by Morgan Freeman (that's whose voice I heard in my head during her sections in the book), but I want to see Cicely Tyson and I'm intrigued by the casting of Bryce Dallas Howard as the evil Hilly Holbrook, a gal who really loves her pie.  After the movie, I'm really done with you, Female Southern American Literature.  I'm closing my door.  Unless you're a Zora Neale Hurston book, don't come a-knockin'.

*This type of fiction and I had a good long run, starting with Gone with the Wind when I was 12.

**I kind of liked Kathryn Stockett's choice of a name for this character.

***Wes Tooke in Lucky: Maris, Mantle and My Best Summer Ever also used To Kill a Mockingbird and Bob Dylan to establish an early 1960s setting. As much as I love Harper and Zimmy, isn't there some fresh way to express this?


jenclair said...

I don't know if I'm completely over SAFWBW yet, but I've been inclined to skip The Help. The reviews (and there is always the exception, eh, Bybee?) have been so...zealous.

Now, I'm pretty sure that it won't make my reading list. Man, I hate that big brass spitton (quite a bit of that in the latest Kurt Wallender). First, you are pleased to catch it as you say, but when the author has so little respect for you to keep on and on and on with the hints, well, that IS insulting.

As usual, you make me laugh. I'm putting this down as a classic review of a book I don't want to read! You Rock!

Teresa said...

Ha! I've been over SAFWBW for a while, perhaps ever since The Secret Life of Bees, which I liked just fine but wasn't in raptures over. But I'm just done with the folksy voices and women named Skeeter. Thanks for confirming my gut instinct not to read The Help. It sounds like exactly what I thought it would be, and that ain't good!

Unruly Reader said...

Bybee, dear reader, I thank you. I've been avoiding this book like the plague ever since it hit it big, and now you've told me why. I.Am.Vindicated. Phew. No need to muscle through it. Ever.

Miss Moppet said...

I do like this type of fiction so it was a disappointment not to like this one. I actually intended writing a long review about why exactly I disliked the book - although in a way it was more the print reviews I had a beef with because they built it up as the new Mockingbird which was way off IMO. But that kind of review is such a chore to write and I let it slide. So I'm glad to learn from yours that I'm not the only book blogger who didn't love The Help!

Sue F. said...

I did enjoy this book, but was not over thrilled with it as most of the general public seemed to be. What I enjoyed the very most in this book was the back of the book where the author listed all of her resources/references. Now that looked like some interesting reading to me!

Kathleen said...

I have resisted reading this one because it seemed that everyone was reading it and I always want to wait awhile before I join the crowd. Thank you for such an honest review. I'm not sure I will rush to read the book but I will definitely plan to read the book before I see the movie.

Eva said...

LOL I love Southern fiction in theory, but I'm positive I wouldn't love The Help. I suspect my reaction would be much like yours, and this whole post made me happy!

Anonymous said...

But, but, but...what about Mudbound?? Sure, it's Southern fiction, but it's darker than The Help. Much darker.

Jenny said...

I'm not over what you're over, but I am miles and miles over fiction written by white women about the experiences of black women in slavery and Jim Crow eras of American history. Ugh. (And I say this, of course, with great self-righteousness and without having read The Help. :p)

Gilion at Rose City Reader said...

What a terrific, refreshing review! I loved it!

I never much got under SAFWBW -- at least post Flannery O'Conner -- so I can't say that I am over it. But The Help didn't catch my fancy. I was afraid to say so, though, since everyone seemed to be smitten. Now maybe I'll speak up.


Jenny said...

I'm not sure this is exactly what Other Jenny is saying, but I am really over Whitey Saves the World books and movies, and that includes To Kill a Mockingbird. (There is not one single real-life example of a white person intervening to stop a lynching in the South.) So I don't think I'll read this one.