What happens when two thirtysomething siblings relive the summer reading programs of their youth in an all-out battle of the books? The race is on as they read by the rules and keep tally on their logs to see who will be the ultimate reader by Labor Day 2010.

July 5, 2010

Brendan Finally Read a Book: The Help

My sister's children, the poor things, haven't learned any swear words* yet. The cruelest insult they can hurl at each other is "meanie," which leads to some pretty toothless exchanges in my opinion. I think, however, if they were to read "The Help" they would upgrade "meanie" to "Hilly Holbrook," a character of such unrelenting cruelty that her name should equal a swear word.

Hilly is the villain of "The Help," a book that every woman in America has been mandated to read by 2012 under "The Lovely Bones Act" recently passed by Congress. Hilly casually ruins lives with the same coolness with which she runs her Junior League meetings, and she's so over-the-top despicable you fear her and wish for her downfall with equal measure. Ultimately, I found her too broadly drawn to seem realistic. Stockett mentions a redeeming quality every seventy pages or so (loves her kids, can be a good friend occasionally, slow reader) but by the end her wickedness is so cartoonish that I had a hard time taking her seriously. But then again I didn't grow up in 1960's Mississippi, so maybe the Hilly's of the world are far more prevalent and petty than I care to believe.

The rest of the book is extremely readable, and Stockett does a great job of frontloading the plot with lots of unanswered questions that keeps you turning the page (What happened to Constantine? What was the Terrible Awful Thing Minnie did to Hilly? What's the deal with Celia?) The three main characters are all well-drawn, even if they seem overly familiar. Minnie sometimes comes across as a greatest-hits compilation of Miss Sophia from "The Color Purple" and Skeeter is a more fleshed-out version of the main character in that movie where Ally Sheedy started the Civil Rights movement. But I did get sucked into the story, and while Stockett flirts with clich├ęs she also provides lots of surprises, particularly with the supporting characters. The last hundred pages are especially satisfying, as all of the various characters either overcome or succumb to the limitations of their time, and there are plenty of Oscar-Winning moments for the inevitable movie version (okay, I teared up at the final church scene). Hilly even gets a form of comeuppance, although it is nowhere near as good as the all-time best mean-girl-comeuppance in literature, which is of course found in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's "The Changeling."** But Stockett's restraint is appreciated and implies that while these women have accomplished much, they have many more challenges to face in their life.

*The exception is my eight year-old niece, who confessed last summer that she had learned one from the Harry Potter books. When I asked her what it was, she whispered "damn," only she pronounced it "dam-na." I realized then that she had inherited our family's reading vocabulary gene, which causes us to mispronounce words - such as "mauve" - which we only encounter on the page. I was also surprised that a child who spends as much time with my father as she does had never heard that word pronounced out loud.

**This might not entirely hold up if I were to read it today, but I do remember the final car wash scene being so fantastic I wanted to throw the book across the room and applaud when I read it in 1985.

1 comment:

  1. One of the twins now hurls this insult: "You're a momo!". Trust me, those words sting.

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