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Books: Stockett, good; Gruen, bad.

Recently I have enjoyed a range of good reads and one very disappointing one. The first good book was Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I had read both good and bad reviews, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course, I am a total outsider and have no idea how realistic or otherwise Stockett’s depiction of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi is, including the relationships (or lack of relationships) between the well-heeled white women and their black maids, or the dialect used by the maids (but not by their mistresses). While the book jacket comparisons to Gone with the Wind and even To Kill A Mocking Bird are more for publicity than fact, The Help is a good story, with likable characters and evocative descriptions of hot, steamy Mississippi. Along the way it serves to remind us of America’s shameful recent history in race relations; a history almost certainly still an issue in some places and for many people, even if not in such a blatant manner.

It is always a disappointment when a good writer publishes a mediocre novel. I purchased Sara Gruen’s Riding Lessons: A Novel on the basis of her first novel,Water for Elephants: A Novel which I read and liked when I read it shortly after it was first published. I thought that Riding Lessons was her next book, and only after reading it discovered it was, in fact, a novel she wrote before Water for Elephants, but was published after, no doubt in the hope that everyone, like me, would buy it because of her previous success. I couldn’t believe it was by the same writer, the style was so different. The writing was mediocre, the editing non-existent, the story trivial and the characters, cardboard cut-outs. The two main women characters, the mother and her daughter, were nasty, selfish and totally unlikeable. The motivations and actions of these two unpleasant humans were psychologically implausible (and that from my 30 years as a clinical psychologist). Even the horses weren’t particularly engaging! It was a struggle to get through and I read a few other books in between. Why I bothered I don’t really know, but I think I just wanted to find out if she could somehow redeem her characters, her story, and herself by the end. She didn’t. The moral in this story is to keep the books you learnt on in the bottom drawer unless they are truly up to the standard of your successes. The frightening thing is that there is a sequel to Riding Lessons titled Flying Changes, where the two unpleasant women no doubt carry on being unpleasant and unreal. Thank goodness I didn’t buy it in a cheap double deal. I certainly won’t be reading it, and it will take some rave reviews to encourage me to pick up a future Gruen novel, although her next book may well be as good as Water For Elephants.
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