Review: The Help

The HelpThe Help
by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Help / 9781440697661

I came to "The Help" after seeing the movie in theaters and enjoying it immensely. I'm not sure what I can say about this book that the five million other 5-star reviews haven't already said, but I'll try to focus on what I did (and in some cases didn't) like about the book in comparison to the film.

First of all, I like the size and scope of this novel. The movie had to cut a lot out in order to fit the time limit, and I think it did a great job of condensing the storyline, but I really love the added scope of the novel. The book grips you from the first page to the last and never feels padded or too long, but at the same time there's a huge wealth of detail here that couldn't be added to the movie. I like that the novel takes time to emphasize the physical hardships of the maids; sexual assault by employers is mentioned briefly, and one maid has been physically scarred by her employer insisting she wash her hands with bleach every morning. This isn't a book that glosses over the ugly realities of these women's lives and I appreciated that.

I also like the way the relationship between the maids and Skeeter is better defined. I know the movie got some criticism for Skeeter seeming in some ways like a savior to the maids, and here it's crystal clear that Skeeter is really nothing more than a go-between to the publisher and a skilled transcriptionist and editor. Aibileen is consistently noted to be the better author of the two women, and her parts of the novel are praised as being the best written; the other areas are edited and tightened by both Skeeter and Aibileen working in cooperation.

In addition to this division of skill and labor, I like that Skeeter isn't represented as a saint divorced from her cultural upbringing. The bathroom separation bugs her, but it takes an epiphany for her to realize that the Jim Crow segregation laws -- that she initially thought were perfectly fine -- are really essentially the same as the separate bathrooms. Both the "hygiene initiative" and the segregation laws are wrong, but it takes Skeeter time and emotional growth to realize that. Socialization is also handled in depth with the training and teaching of Mae Mobley, Aibileen's young charge, and the point is made that Aibileen "moves on" to new children because she can't bear to see them once they've been socialized into prejudice -- a serious and heart-breaking point about how we come to our own biases as children.

I really like that real ink is spent on the inequality of women in this book as well. One of the "good" employers suffers from serious depression and mentions that her husband is pressuring her to undergo shock treatment. The relationship with Skeeter and her boyfriend is seriously examined, and Skeeter recognizes that the role he wants her to take is one that would stifle her spirit entirely. Domestic violence is also addressed in the novel, although I wish it had been addressed in both societies, rather than just one.

The one thing I really did not like about this book is that it delves into a level of body-shaming that I found uncomfortable. Several characters are noted to be fat, but a distinction is made between the main villain's 'bad' fat (she's ugly and eats too much) and several of the maids' 'good' fat (that babies like to snuggle into). Another employer is described dismissively as too skinny, with a bony, boyish body that babies supposedly aren't going to find comfortable or snuggly. I'm a firm believer in body acceptance and that all bodies are beautiful, so it was uncomfortable for me to read about villains who are ugly-and-fat or ugly-and-skinny because I didn't think the descriptions were necessary. The references were for the most part kept to a minimum, but I'm glad that the movie didn't try to recreate that characterization.

I can't speak to how true or accurate this novel is. I can say that it is a gripping read, entertaining without being trite, and leaving the reader with a strong impression of the importance of empathy, kindness, and equality in society. I think there is a relevancy to this novel that is meaningful and necessary today, and I do recommend it.

~ Ana Mardoll

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