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01.16.10

Do I Have to Read The Help?

The Daily Beast’s William Boot reviews bestseller novels to see which, if any, are readable. This week: Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

Book: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Pages: 451
Readable Pages: All of them
Sample line: “No one ever asked Mammy how she felt.”

Look, I’m not the ideal reader for The Help. I’m not a middle-aged woman. I’ve never been to Mississippi. I’m not turned on by the smell of grits. I hate plucky heroines. And when I read a bestselling novel, the last thing I want is to be reminded of is that we are all one people.

But here I was the other day on a cross-country flight, and I was devouring this book that sits atop the Times bestseller list. Kathryn Stockett’s novel begins in 1962. The setting is Jackson, Mississippi, during the last gasps of Jim Crow. Just about lady worth in her salt in Jackson has a maid. The maids polish the silver, quiet the colicky infants, and iron dresses with 65 pleats on the waist. For their hard work, they are treated like subhuman filth and shooed to the “colored” restroom out back. Don’t have segregated restrooms in your house? Honey, tell your husband to call a carpenter today!

Three women seek to tip the balance. One is Skeeter Phelan—Miss Skeeter, as she’s known. Miss Skeeter is 24, unmarried, ultra-plucky. She wants to be a writer. She decides, in due course, that she could write a book in which she interviews the maids of Jackson, drawing out of them every humiliating experience they’ve had at the hands of their white employers. The book is called Help—a postmodern touch and, for the long-suffering maids, a clever double-entendre.

Skeeter has two domestics who are her main informants: Aibileen, a saintly soul, a master of benevolent child-rearing, and Minny, a putdown artist. (Minny on her white employer: “She smiles like the thought never entered that hairsprayed head of hers.”) They reluctantly agree to share their stories with Skeeter and recruit other maids to rat out their employers, too. “I must be crazy, giving sworn secrets a the colored race to a white lady,” Minny says. Thus begins a brutal dissection of white society from the maids’ point of view: Cleaning Up After Miss Daisy.

Aibileen and Minny are voyeurs in the tradition of Wodehouse’s Jeeves—they see all. They tell us which of Jackson’s leading matrons has stashed her mother in a nursing home. Which matron responds to her young daughter’s calls for affection has if she’s avoiding a rabid dog. They lift a rug to reveal a hidden bloodstain. They lift a cloth to reveal an L-shaped crack in the antique dining table. What they’re doing is brutally illustrating the decay of ‘60s southern gentility: it’s their small revenge for the far greater horrors of segregation.

This is fun stuff, well-written and often applause-worthy. My only problem with The Help is that, in the end, it’s not really about the help. For all her assurance in sketching out the foibles of the Junior League, Stockett is shakier when it comes to the maids. They never quite come into focus—they’re more useful for what they see rather than who they are. There’s a scene on Page 255 where Minny and Aibileen and the others gather in the African-American section of town to tell Skeeter their life stories. Skeeter records the stories, but Stockett never shares them with us, a whopping omission. It is an unusual thing when the book you’re holding doesn’t measure up to the one main character is writing.

A few more gripes: Must every name in a southern novel (Miss Hilly, Celia Foote) edge so close to parody? Did Stockett need to import a cockamamie love interest for Skeeter, one Stuart Whitworth, the state senator’s son, who feels like he lost his way from a Tennessee Williams play? Does there really need to be a plantation named “Longleaf?” But, really, those are minor quibbles. I may not be in the target audience for The Help, but I read every plucky page. Good bestsellers are so hard to find.

Read it? Yes.

Previously reviewed by William Boot:

U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton
I, Cross by James Patterson

Plus: Check out Book Beast for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

William Boot covered the war in Ishmaelia and wrote the Lush Places column for The Daily Beast. He now reviews commercial fiction.