Every so often, one of my book reviews makes me question my reading radar. Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel The Help is a highly-readable book, but readability does not bestow greatness upon a book. This review has also inspired another post by me titled What Popular Books Have You Loathed? As always, I aim to be fair in getting at well a particular book does not sit well with me.
In this age where anyone can post a review, maybe the 5,200 readers and counting who have given The Help five stars on Amazon deserve the final word on Kathryn Stockett’s story that focuses on race relations in civil rights era Jacksonville, Mississippi. I’ll just get it out there: The Help needs help.
Plenty of spoilers abound elsewhere, so I won’t bother rehashing plot and character details from the book, not to mention The Help has since become a huge Hollywood movie of the same name. What I want to explore is the answer to this question: How can such a readable book be so bad?
First of all, I was struck by the emptiness of the characters. Practically all of them are flat and stereotypical, yet they are easy to like or hate. Sockett’s novel is by no means literary fiction. It’s a breezy, quick-read type of book that belongs on supermarket check-out shelves. Celia’s white trash character seemed to have the most potential for deeper development, but the author instead choose to demean her character in a ridiculous manner.
Two other major flaws of the story deal with the overly suspenseful plot and the choice of narrator. Important elements of the story seem to build and build only to softly fade away. By the end of the book all I could do was shrug my shoulders just like many of the characters seemed to do.
Stockett is a white female author whose white female protagonist becomes the voice of African American maids as she collects and edits their stories for her book. Of course, everything works out hunky-dory for our spunky narrator Skeeter. As a character she’s a do-gooder who lacks a sense of struggle, and all good fiction needs a solid sense of conflict to be truly satisfying.
Then there are just all the other pieces of the puzzle that make me feel like I as a reader had just ingested the literary equivalent of sugar-coated cereal. The dialect is akin to nails on a chalkboard and only the African American characters speak it, nary a southern belle in this book utters so much as a drawl. Historical inaccuracies abound, which is inexcusable on behalf of the writer and associated editor. Also, some scenes felt totally unneeded, such as the masturbating man who appears out in the country. And the deal with the pie? Gimme a break… really? Honestly?
Hopefully Kathryn Stockett’s second novel will show some writerly growth. I just cringe to think that this book will be touted in schools as great literature when really it should be used to teach what mistakes to avoid when writing a book.
Have you read The Help or seen the movie version? How do your views differ from mine?
For more insight, read my Book Review Criteria. Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2013
Really 4000 five star reviews? I rather think, given your own here, and of course knowing what this book is about, that that might be indicative of something other than the actual writing. It’s kind of sad that we do see this trend in many things actually, becoming so successful for perhaps the wrong reasons; mediocrity winning out over talent because of marketing, a cause, quirk, ‘trending’ itself even, or simply just be a singer’s good looks, etc. Strange, but entirely predictable human behaviour.
I couldn’t agree with you more 😉
There you have it. An honest review about a popular book. Good for you Jeri! Seriously… if it’s a bad book, don’t sugar coat it. 🙂
Cheryl, I definitely couldn’t sugarcoat this review. It’s not often that a book just really rubs me the wrong way as a reader.
Thanks for telling it like it is. I think your review was right on the money – very perceptive. Truly, good book reviewers are a writer’s best friend.
Charles, thanks for finding my review perceptive. I always get a little nervous when posting a less than flattering take on a popular book. However, I had so such qualms when it came to reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey 😉
There are many popular books that I’ve read, where I’ve shaken my head and wondered what the fuss was about. I had not read this book, but now I’m not likely to.
Millie, if you see the movie version of The Help you’ll get the gist. For me, this is a time the more stream-lined nature of the movie version was a plus.
I hear you but I still loved the book. My mother was a southern belle and many of the issues that were addressed resonated with me. Inaccuracies aside, my parents move when I was very young to MD. I remember hearing them speak of their concern with some of the things the author addressed in her book. 🙂
Susan, I was surprised I had such a reaction to this book, but as I detail in the review, there were just too many issues for me to fully recommend it. Stockett does have some great writing talent, so I hope her next book is more balanced.
I have only seen the movie but do hope to read the book one day to be able to compare the two 🙂
Christy, thanks for stopping by. This is an instance where I would say I found the movie more appealing than the book due to the great performances in the film.
My wife saw the movie and enjoyed it. There are very few times that I get into ones like this (the whole thing seems too chick flick to me). I didn’t care for Fried Green Tomatoes either (but that is one of my wife’s favorites).
Jon, I’m not much for chick flicks either… on occasion but not usually.
I couldn’t agree more Jeri. Like you said it was an easy read and while parts of it were interesting it gave me the creeps. The fact that none of the white people had any dialect attached to them basically says if all. The main positive regarding the novel is that apparently the author had 60 rejections before she found representation. So u have to laud her tenacity. Her writing, not so much. Thanks for an honest review.
A.K., sixty rejections? Then Stockett’s tenacity truly is impressive. What I don’t understand is why some things slipped through that any decent editing team could have helped the author address.
I saw the film and really enjoyed, and I am a bloke! Might try the book soon…
Paul, that’s alright 🙂 Even blokes can enjoy such books and movies too.
I probably would have bought the book as I liked the movie but I will not now because of your review. I liked the honesty of the review Jeri especially as you gave reasons which as a reader I can understand.
I am not saying the author did anything but more stories are coming out about fake reviews and buying up books to boost their rankings.
Susan, I’m sure all of Stockett’s 5,000 rave reviews and counting are legit. What really gets me is the book will be used in high school literature classrooms. To teach literature with multiple flaws just because it’s popular opens a huge can of worms.
Wow, I really enjoyed the critique! I watched the movie in New Orleans and it really hit home as the movie theatre had a balcony that was once used for “the blacks”. I didn’t think about the plot as much as I thought about the context of the story and what it was like back in the day. The saddest part is that many of the same thoughts still reside in the head of many people in the South. The times have changed but the people…. not so much.
Dan, now that I’ve lived in the South for two years as well, I get what you mean by times changing but people not as much. As a historical novel, The Help reflects the influence of a modern mindset, which to me, detracts from the overall tone of the book.
Someone gave me the book to read and I gave it to my husband. He started to read it and gave up after about two nights, he just couldn’t get into it. All becomes clear with your review. Thanks for this.
Debra, I may have been able to finish The Help, but even if the historical inaccuracies and editorial flubs has not been present, I still think it would strike me as lacking in conviction on behalf of the author.
I always love honest reviews and ones that counteract the overwhelming majority’s ideas. I never read this book because I always shy away from those reads that are “fads”, but I did see the movie and believe this may be one instance where the movie was better than the book. I never knew there were historical inaccuracies published and thats just inexcusable.
Kelly, one of the inaccuracies in The Help was the author’s choice to use lyrics from a Bob Dylan song that wasn’t even out at the time the book’s plot covers. It doesn’t matter to some, but when dealing with historical fiction, I’d say it really is a big deal. You were right to avoid the this “fad” read.
I didn’t love the book or the movie, but I don’t mind that it will be read in school—although hopefully not held out as an example of great literature. What it does do is illustrate for many Millennials a time in our not so distant past that they can’t even imagine.
Suzanne, I do suppose The Help could help bring the past to life for students, especially since To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t have the buzz factor needed to catch many young readers’ interest (and I know because I taught that novel six years and counting!)
I got the audiobook version for a couple of long rides. I arrived places in such a bad mood because of this stupid, stupid story. Shallow, boring, amateur.
I’ve lost faith in amazon book reviews.
THANK YOU for YOUR honesty!
Angel, I do my best to give balanced and honest book reviews. Thanks for stopping by!