In 1994 I did a study abroad program in Argentina. I lived with a family in Buenos Aires. They had a beautiful apartment in a very wealthy section of town. All of the apartment buildings in this part of town had doormen and each unit had servant quarters. The maid that worked for the family with whom I lived was called Irma. She was maybe 30-something, but she looked older to me with a gaunt face and several gaps in her smile where her teeth had rotted away. She had a two and a half year old daughter named Angie. They slept on a small cot-like bed in a tiny room off the kitchen. They also had their own bathroom that had a sink and toilet and a pipe sticking out of the wall that served as a shower head. There wasn’t really a shower stall, just a drain in the floor so after you took a shower, you’d need to wipe down the toilet and sink and squeegee the floor. It was a pretty tiny bathroom, maybe 3’ x 3’ in area. Irma’s husband was a doorman in a nearby by building. On Saturday nights she and Angie would leave and I was told that they went with her husband to their own house that was someplace else. They came back sometime on Sunday night. One time I overheard the family I lived with discussing their finances, and from that, I learned that they paid Irma about one dollar an hour. Angie’s little baby teeth were already rotten from lack of oral hygiene. She was a sweet little girl and followed me around the apartment, like a puppy. She called me “La Chénifer.”
Having grown up in a house with a stay-at-home mom, we never had any outside domestic help, and when my sister and I got old enough, we had chores to do around the house. I know I was a typical lazy kid and only did the chores half-assed. But I remember my mom saying she would never be able to have a maid come because she just couldn’t stand having anyone else in the house. Those six months in Argentina taught me what it felt like to have someone besides your family cleaning up after you. And it was a very uncomfortable feeling. I remember thinking twice about what I threw in the wastebasket, and making sure that when I spit out my toothpaste, it left no residue in the sink. I never mind my own mess, but once I knew someone was behind me wiping it up, it made me think twice about making it in the first place.
But having lived a sheltered middle class American life until this point, the part I found most disturbing was the class differences. My host family felt they were doing something benevolent by giving this woman a place to sleep and an income, however meager that income was. But I felt uncomfortable that Irma and Angie ate in the kitchen while we sat in the dining room. And I had all I could do to stop myself from buying that baby a toothbrush. But she wasn’t my daughter and I felt like I couldn’t interfere. Perhaps it was better for Irma to make $8.00 a day and have a clean, safe bed to sleep in. I can only imagine what her home was like, the one she visited Saturday nights. With what she and her husband made, my guess was that they lived in a shanty town, like so many I’d seen in parts of Buenos Aires. The Argentines called them the Villas Miserias, which literally translates to “misery towns,” but in practicality means “slums.” I was only a visitor in this place. I was there to experience the culture, observe and try not to judge something of which I was not a part. But it remains one of the experiences that left me questioning class and race and economic status in a very personal way.
Which brings me to the book reviews… It’s probably weird to do a double book review, but I want to shake things up with the blog and challenge myself a bit. The Help by Kathryn Stockett and The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar make for great comparison. Both books have a domestic servant/employer relationship at the core. Parallel to that, they have class/caste differences that go along with those relationships, and both dig into the lives of both servant and employer showing the good, the bad and the ugly. The Help is set in Mississippi in the 1960s and The Space Between Us is set in Bombay, India presumably in present day, but with flashbacks to maybe 20-30 years prior. With all these similarities, and considering I read them one after the other, I was bound to be comparing them in my head over and over again.
Since this is a double-review, I’ll make the plot summaries short:
Set in Jackson, Mississippi, with the beginnings of the civil rights movement as a backdrop to the events in the story, the three main characters in The Help, one young white woman and two black domestic servant women embark on writing a book with stories about what it is like to be a black maid working for white people. They live in constant fear that their project will be discovered, which could have been especially dangerous for the women sharing their stories for the book. This book is thought provoking and entertaining, with plenty of disturbing images, alongside fun, laugh out loud parts. But in the end, it leaves you smiling and our three main characters have brighter futures ahead.
The Space Between Us is a more serious, slightly more depressing story. There are some fun, lighthearted moments, but the present-day story is dominated by the unwanted pregnancy of the granddaughter of one of the main characters, and then it is peppered with flashbacks that tell you the sorrows and joys of both servant and employer. You see the arm’s length closeness that these two women have for each other. They both respect and abhor each other at the same time.
The Help 9
The Space Between Us 8.5
Both of these novels are page-turners, but I found The Help’s characters and plot to be a little more entertaining than Space, plus with the characters in The Help always working toward writing their book and worrying that other people will find out, so there was this constant need to keep turning the page to see what would happen. The Space just kind of ambles along, and while there is an upsetting, plot-thickening surprise about ¾ of the way through, it didn’t propel me in the same way that The Help did.
The Help 8
The Space Between Us 9
Both books had me reflecting on my own life experience more than most books, both because of my previous experience abroad, and my current life as a working-outside-the-home parent, where I currently employ other people to watch my children when I’m at work and to clean my house every other week. Hmmmm…
Writing Skills Factor
The Help 7.5
This book is definitely in the “popular fiction” category. The writing is good and entertaining, but not complex or profound by any means.
The Space Between Us 8.5
Umbrigar’s prose is more erudite than Stockett’s; the writing is intelligent and clear. I like how she bookended the story with a single scene, split in two parts, making you feel like you’ve come full circle, compelling you to re-read the prologue again and again to make sense of it and reflect.
The Help: 9. You will LOVE the 3 main characters in this book. And the secondary characters are just as rich—you’ll hate some of them, and pity many of them. This book has characters you will miss when you’ve read the last page.
The Space Between Us: 8. The main characters in this book are also richly drawn, and the secondary characters offer some light hearted relief, as well as some key plot twists that change the direction of the story significantly. And there’s a nasty mother-in-law. Everyone loves to hate the nasty mother-in-law character…
Story Telling Factor
The Help 9
The Space Between Us 8.9
The Help definitely had more momentum in the plot than The Space Between Us, but as you get further into Space, the plot takes on more definition once Umrigar drops the plot bomb ¾ of the way through; that thing that you find out links several parts of the story and several characters together. (I’m trying not to be a spoiler, here.)
Bad Ass Babe Factor
The Help 9—Minnie, Aibileen & Skeeter are fun, strong, interesting, fabulous characters and total Bad Ass Babes. Especially Minnie.
The Space Between Us – Not applicable. While Sera & Bhima are good characters, I just don’t see them earning BAB points here…it’s just not that kind of a book.
The Help: 8.58333333
The Space Between Us: 8.58
And it is totally not planned that the ratings are so close, but I’m not surprised they are, or that I liked The Help just a little bit more…interesting…