Review: ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett

Choosing an angle which perhaps hasn’t been as represented in the fight for equality, Stockett’s novel looks at the help behind the powerful women in 1960s, and the small contributions each person made to the overwhelming Civil Rights Movement.

The dialect allows the novel to connect with the reader more readily: Stockett represents these characters to us in every way possible, from this to the inferred emotional states of each character. It allows us to gain an overview of the situation, alongside the individual perspectives we are privy to. Each vantage point is crafted to offer complete contrasts of opinions: Aibileen’s wise and respected council prompted by her excitement at fulfilling her son’s dream, Skeeter’s ambitious yet compassionate nature which tests her life’s entire structure, and Minnie’s sassy yet soulful rants against everyone, but especially those she loves most.

I think what resonates most in this novel is that Hillie’s still exist: there are still people seeking to keep others underneath them in order to pursue their own gains, something which translates across eras and political situations. What is important, therefore, is the message this book sends: even those considered behind-the-scenes, unnoticeable and unrepresented, are capable of creating a ripple effect that shakes a society to its core.

What I also appreciated were the origins and continuation of Skeeter’s character: she wasn’t ever portrayed as a Civil Rights sympathiser, although obviously the touching tales of the women she represented made her question her position within life; no, she remained the ambitious career girl breaking away from the limitations of Jackson. Stockett’s portrayal of a woman breaking away from tradition ran alongside the theme of freedom and equality: the costs of Skeeter’s ambitions are high, but her determination is higher still. It’s this dedication to her character which ties the novel together: her passion earns her the respect of Aibileen and the respect of Minnie.

I think what is also important here is that this isn’t preaching about equality: the emphasis on the positive stories and experiences shared by the ‘help’ in their interviews is crucial in showing that individuals were capable of kindness. Perhaps this is the strongest message of all: united, humans are a cruel force, but when singled out the barriers come down and emotions are allowed to rule over cultural concepts: no one knows this better than Hillie, the denier of the book when her pie incident is singled out.

What Stockett has achieved here, therefore, is a novel which shakes up belief systems without trying to: her messages are simple and interwoven with her characters lives, but she does not preach on behalf of society’s ills; they are displayed for us to examine, and come to our own judgments about. All Stockett provides is a little ‘help’ in understanding our world.

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Review: ‘Mini Shopaholic’ by Sophie Kinsella

Becky's back: better or bust?

I’m an avid Sophie Kinsella fan, although the problem here is too much of a good thing: ‘Shopaholic’ was an addictive series, and despite Becky Brandon (nee Bloomwood) and her various failures, I always used to come out feeling like she deserved to be where the final chapters placed her, whether it was married or expecting a baby or shopped out (although I don’t think that one’s possible!). This book didn’t leave me feeling like that: I finished with a sense that I’d been led down too many paths with barely any resolutions.

Let’s start with the premise: it’s been two years, and Becky has a clone in the form of her daughter, Minnie. The idea of the Brandon’s as a family unit fell flat on its face: Luke was barely around, he and Becky were constantly on guard from keeping a million implausible secrets, Minnie was a half-hearted story (apart from in the company of Elinor, when she became a viable part of a storyline), and together they failed to represent a family that was succeeding by the end. Instead, a quick chat with Nanny Sue resolved Luke’s issues and he suddenly became the perfect husband and father, Becky magically resolved her shopaholic tendencies somewhere between the mannequin incident with Minnie and the party, and Minnie went from out of control to angel in six seconds flat. None of the family-oriented stories seemed to have any real substance and seemed to be resolved with no real credibility.

However, one storyline resolved this: Elinor’s. Kinsella wrote Elinor’s sections beautifully, and holding back from revealing Elinor as the party’s benefactor was perfect, as it admitted that not everything can end happily ever after, and any reunion would have compromised Elinor’s sorrowful and truly heartbreaking situation. I think this also brought out the best parts of Becky, which were sorely missed from the rest of the book: she can be utterly brilliant, respectful and act in the best interests of everyone, despite her extravagancies and often ridiculous plans. Elinor Sherman showed that it’s never too late to repent, and that sometimes love is knowing when to allow someone to live without you – and while we know that Elinor deserves no sympathy for the past, she certainly redeems herself here.

Character-wise, I missed Suze, and I think Kinsella’s presentation of Becky needed Suze to make her more realistice:  she tries to show our favourite shopaholic as independent, when she’s actually always needed those around her to grow and be shown as naive yet lovable for her efforts to us.  This is seen when Becky tells Suze she doesn’t need help with the party, and later has to crawl back – Suze allows Becky to be seen as an adult instead of a caricature.

Essentially, the plot took things a bit too far this time: yes, from previous experience we can believe that Becky would go crazy in a discount store and if she was banned from shopping, but Minnie having spent her pocket money until 2103 was insane, as was Becky’s suspension then sudden dramatically high promotion to the Board of Directors: reality mixed a bit too much with fantasy, and the movement of this borderline was a bit tedious at times, although the leaps into Becky’s far-fetched imagination are always entertaining, mainly because we’ve all had that moment when we’ve imagined something out of proportion to what is actually happening. And likewise, we’ve all had those penny-pinching moments where we’ve overspent in the cheaper shops because we thought we were saving money – oops!

I would have been interested to see how Becky coped at Nanny Sue’s academy, instead of jetting off to L.A. at the end: it seems like one extreme facing another, a land of restriction versus a shopper’s paradise, and we’ve already seen Becky in New York so the former would have been a refreshing change. While my read of ‘Mini Shopaholic’ wasn’t exactly a consumer joy, it was a nice break from a world of recession, and it hasn’t put me off reading the next one, let’s just hope Kinsella returns to her designer chic best!