My Book Club’s March book: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

This book has been on the best seller lists for quite some time now.  It’s been a wildly popular book club selection.  (I remember hearing about it at the Barnes & Noble form about book clubs that I attended last year). Based on that, I mentioned it to my fellow book-clubbers, and one of them added it to our “virtual bookshelf” of potential reads.  It was picked for our March 2011 book.

I’m always interested in books that become uber-popular.  When I read them, I find myself unable to resist trying to figure out what is it about this particular book that has made it so popular above and beyond “normal” popularity.  I wonder if part of the reason for this one is the “rooting for the underdog factor.”  I want Skeeter Phelan to succeed. I want Abeleine’s story to be told.  I want Milly to escape her abusive husband and improve her life.  There’s also a component of “the villain you love to hate factor.”  How despicable is Hilly Holbrook?  The New York Times review of this book describes her as such a witch “the readers want to see someone drop a house on her.” I think she is made more loathsome since she conducts her villainy under a mask of gentility. I am reminded of my top ten literary villains list post from last year where one of my “favorites” was Ellsworth Toohey from The Fountainhead.  The villain who masquerades as a crusader for good.  Those are the most despicable kind.  Never underestimate the literary power of a good villain!

I’m not generally a fan of the multiple viewpoint novel.  I often find it distracting.  Just as I’ve settled into reading from Skeeter’s viewpoint, we switch back to Milly’s (Oh, and all of these are written in the First Person) with her different attitudes and different language.  Then, just as I’d get used to that, we’d switch over to Abeleine’s.  This isn’t my preferred way to read, but in this case it wasn’t that bad.  I was able to deal with it.  I remember one of my earliest experiences with the multiple-viewpoint novel was Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Written in epistolary style with multiple letter writers (or gramophone recorders in one case), I found it distracting as well.

Stockett weaves in some “reality” to the story with brief mentions of actual historic events. The murder of Medgar Evers,  The Vietnam War, The assassination of JFK, the civil rights marches, etc.  This helps put the novel in historical context, but I was continually surprised by the naivete of the Skeeter character.  How she repeatedly doesn’t realize the full danger and “explosiveness” of the situation she and the maids are in, how she doesn’t keep close enough tabs on her satchel, and several other instances just stretch the limits of my credibility. I guess we can say she is young and just write it off to that, but she’s  a college graduate and supposedly a journalist and writer.  Maybe her lack of experience (also further illustrated by her somewhat awkward relationship with Stuart Whitworth) in the world makes this believable, but I struggled with it. Several members of my book club pointed out that they “kept waiting for something terrible to happen” to the maids or to Skeeter, but it never really does – this also stretched the limits of my credibility.

Another thing I liked about the book was the editor character in New York, Mrs. Stein, and her “detached mentoring” of Skeeter.  I loved the first letter she sent Skeeter and how she concluded it:  I do this only because someone once did the same for me…  I thought that was great.  It reminded me of a passage from Stephen King’s excellent non-fiction book, On Writing.  He had already been experimenting with writing for years in school, and finally – in an effort to channel his mischief elsewhere – his school administrators shepherd him into a part time job for the local paper (as in a Real World writing job).  King includes a photocopy of his first article’s submitted text with the editor’s mark-ups.  It was an epiphany for him.  I can’t remember the exact language but he basically says, “why couldn’t someone have told me this long ago?”  That is also a great book, by the way, part biography, part writing instruction.

One thing I didn’t like about the book was what I’ll just call (for anti-spoiler reasons) “The Gross-Out Factor.” If you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean.  I kind of guessed early on what this ‘secret’ was, but if you haven’t read it, I’ll leave it for you to discover.  I realize this was an important plot element that allows Skeeter and the maids to get away with publishing their book – and keeping it from being suppressed – but it was still gross.  J 

Have you read The Help?  What did you think of it?  Why do you think it’s been so very popular?