Saturday, 8 October 2011

What is a 'perfect book'? And does it matter?

First things first. I really, really enjoyed reading this book. I felt genuinely tense when the characters’ fates appeared to be hanging in the balance, gripped by the gentle, but well-structured, plot, actually interested (all too rare) when Secrets From the Past were revealed, and sorry when I’d finished it. So why wasn’t it a ‘perfect read’? Why – if I was reviewing it on Amazon – would I give it four stars instead of five? At first, I thought I was just being biased. The Help seemed to lack some notion of ‘literary quality’ that I couldn’t clearly define, and perhaps only existed in my head because of the horrendously trashy cover it’s been lumbered with. But after much thought, I decided that there was something missing here – much as it seems unfair to focus on that after such a brilliant read.

The Help is set in Mississipippi in the 1960s, and is narrated by three women, the older Aibileen and Minny, who are black maidservants, and Miss Skeeter, a younger white woman who is newly home from college and concerned about the mysterious disappearance of her own maid, Constantine. Miss Skeeter, who is interested in pursuing a career in journalism, seizes upon the idea of interviewing black maids about their experiences of working for their white employers, and this secret project forms the major plot-strand of the book, alongside the gradual unraveling of each character’s life and secrets. Kathryn Stockett notes at the back of the book that this novel was partly based on her own experiences of the maid her family had when she was growing up, and how she wishes she had been able to talk to her more frankly before she died. (Also, strangely, she notes that ‘I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississipippi, especially in the 1960s.’ I certainly don’t presume to judge whether she gets it right, although Minny’s and Aibileen’s voices feel authentic – but as a writer, if I wasn’t sure that I could get to some kind of knowledge of ‘what it really felt like’ to be in a situation like this one that is quite alien to my own experience, I wouldn’t write a book about it at all. And I don’t think that what she’s trying to do is impossible.)

So, given that character, plot and style were solid, what was missing for me? I toyed with the idea at first that the supporting cast weren’t as developed at they could be. Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter do occupy stock roles initially – the accepting old woman, the rebellious younger woman, the idealistic educated woman – but they move beyond these to become fully rounded characters, particularly Aibileen, who felt exceptionally vivid. (The death of her grown son, Treelore, is described briefly in a few paragraphs at the beginning of the novel and rarely mentioned thereafter, but his loss somehow permeates her narrative, and the reader is not allowed to forget it.) In contrast, Hilly, the major antagonist of the novel, was rather flat, with no real motivation given for her exceptional hatred and fear. However, when I wanted to criticise Stockett for her portrayal of Hilly, my mind kept being drawn back to her beautifully-nuanced depiction of Minny’s employer, Miss Celia. My feelings towards the rather pathetic and yet curiously resilent Miss Celia swung every which way throughout the course of the novel, from disgust and frustration at her inability to learn to cook or do the slightest thing for herself, to pity as the reasons behind her behaviour were revealed, to admiration as she showed unexpected strength, to sheer annoyance at her ignorance and lack of tact at a formal party, to a final, qualified liking for her, despite her glaring flaws. With depth such as this, it surely wasn’t right to criticise The Help on grounds of poor characterisation.

The next thing I considered was that the book might be too predictable; while the Secrets from the Past were not entirely guessable, neither were they particularly shocking, and the plotline unfolded without any unexpected turns. But this didn’t seem fair either; I’ve never put much weight on plot as a means of judging the worth of a book, and have often felt frustrated when others criticise novels for having simple plots or lacking a twist at the end, when to my mind the way the writer gets there, not the destination, is the most important thing. Perhaps it was the writing, then? There seemed to be some mileage there; occasionally, brands were name-checked and historical events referred to in a rather obvious ‘I’ve done my research’ way, and although the atmosphere of the 1960s was on the whole conveyed with great subtlety, this did jar somewhat. But ultimately, I decided that wasn’t important enough, nor did it occur frequently enough, to mar the book for me.

The conclusion I came to in the end is that the problem for me is a problem that the book shares with very distinguished company; To Kill a Mockingbird is the obvious example. To put it bluntly, I wasn’t quite sure what The Help was supposed to be about, or it was about something that was too easy. It’s easy enough for the vast majority of us today to deplore the segregation and discrimination that took place in the Deep South in the 1960s, so is this really something that needs to be explored in depth? To be fair, I think to an extent it still does, and here’s where The Help actually scores a big advantage over To Kill a Mockingbird; we get to hear the voices of the black maids themselves, their daily experiences of being belittled, marginalised and ignored. The situation they were in has passed away and few would argue that it should return, but their experiences are relevant to a much wider range of experiences of being without power (I was reminded of the position of Victorian servants a number of times). It made me think how I might react were I in their shoes; whether I'd be able to bow my head and take it, like Aibileen, or whether I would find myself, like Minny, having to hit out. And importantly, Stockett makes the white employers, especially Miss Celia, but to an extent Aibileen’s employer, Miss Leefolt, as well, human enough that we can also worry what we might be like were we in their position; whether we might be patronising, thoughtless or cruel as well. The issue hasn’t gone away, even though the context has changed.

But still, it’s emotionally almost too easy to take a subject like this and make it moving, and I suppose this is where my unease with the novel stems from. Ironically, it isn’t even as moving as it might be. Although I cared about Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter, I didn’t feel passionately involved in the book, except at moments of very high tension; the Secrets from the Past didn’t hurt as much as perhaps they should have done, nor were partings and losses as painful as they might have been. And alongside the subject matter being something on which we can all nod our heads and agree… I think this is where the book loses ground for me, and where I can say that I’m glad it didn’t make the Orange shortlist in 2010, although it was rightfully longlisted. Very much recommended as a great read though. It does deserve those four stars.


  1. I've been toying with reading this book for a while, but as it's one of those hyped-up, must-reads I've kept a little clear. I've read some comments from African-American women who feel that it's patronising and the maids are simply "stock" characters rather than a true representation of the position of Black women in US society. I really enjoyed your review - and it's still a book I'm toying with....

  2. I was toying with reading this book for a very long time as well, Louise, largely for the reasons you describe! I enjoyed it so much that I'm glad I did read it, but it certainly has its flaws. I can't speak from an African-American perspective, but I didn't feel that the black characters were any more 'stock' than the white characters (if anything, the idealistic, proto-feminist Miss Skeeter is the most stock of them all...). However, I did think that Stockett was drawing upon certain stereotypes, so I can see where that criticism is coming from, even though I felt she managed to go beyond the original models. I imagine this will be a particular problem with the film version, which is unlikely to convey much subtlety.