Florence’s Book Club: The Help and Sacred Hearts

This afternoon it’s Florence’s book club and a huge thank you goes to Anna for stepping into the breach with her fabulous review. (Yes, Anna of the Edwardian kitchen make-over – this girl’s multi-talented!)

It’s over to Anna before we introduce our next book – Sacred Hearts below.

I picked up The Help at the airport as my holiday read eighteen months ago. I’d not yet come across the hype that now surrounds this book and the film that followed it, so had very little in the way of expectation.

I think I read it in a day. It may or may not have been the first day of my holiday. From the very start I was totally hooked.
As you are transported to 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, you know what you are reading holds more than a hint of truth, yet you just don’t want to believe it. The unjust treatment of the black maids is hard to stomach, however the compassion they show for each other is humbling. There is a huge depth to each of the main characters. It is impossible not to completely warm to Aibileen; to want to see Miss Hilly get her comeuppance and to stand at the sidelines cheering Skeeter on.

As the stories unfold, it becomes clear that the race divide is not the only pressing theme in the lives of the women we meet. Embedded within their community are more important relationships that transcend the colour of their skin.

The most apparent is that which develops between Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. Skeeter must work hard to win the trust of the two women, but once she has it, they are willing to risk their lives in the belief that she will make the world a safer and fairer place for them and their daughters. Does this say more about the injustice of the Deep South at this time, or the bond of friendship that can be built in the most unlikely places?

I’ve painted the story as a serious one which focuses on the plight of marginalised women 50 years ago. This it is. But at the same time, it is a truly heart-warming tale with some real ‘laugh out loud’ humour in it. Never more so than whenever someone pulls a fast one on Miss Hilly. We have all known a Miss Hilly, the do-gooder who deep down, and for whatever reason, is really not very nice. She holds dear to her heart the belief that black people are inferior. (and she is not alone in this belief)

She symbolises all that is wrong with this society in the author’s eyes. She is portrayed as a bastion of negativity, and not just from the point of view of the maids. Likewise her refusal to welcome Miss Celia into the community shows her as small minded and snobbish. It is difficult to warm to her at all, but should we have more sympathy for such a character? After all, she is doing nothing more than acting on the beliefs instilled in her by the society in which she has been brought up?

There are so many themes running through this novel. The history of black maids in the Deep South; the prejudices faced by them on a daily basis; the expectations of white women to marry and have children, and to forego any kind of career. For me, the biggest theme was change. Change for the better that can be brought about by people, in this case women, working together for a common cause.

A powerful, funny and inspiring read.

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant (recommended by Jo Norman)

I think this would seem to be a perfect book for Florence Finds as it is essentially a love story but is also about the strength of love between women obliged to live together. Set in 1570 in an Italian convent it is the story of the young Seraphina sent to the convent under duress and Zuana who has been in the convent for a number of years intermingled with the stories and politics of cloistered life.

It is a story of a forbidden love, loss of loved ones, the machinations of convent life and repressed passion. Don’t be put off by the religious nature of this book as it certainly doesn’t preach, it just gives you an insight of 1570s life in Italy without feeling like a history lesson. This book does require a little bit of perseverance at the beginning but by the end you won’t be able to turn the pages quick enough.

(Here are some ‘reading notes’ to consider if you want to:)

  • Did you like it?
  • Did it take you a while to really get into it?
  • If you were a woman with few options, would you prefer to go into a convent or to be married off to someone you had no knowlege of?
  • Do you think convents are/were subject to political wrangling?
  • Did you like the ending?
  • Did you think Zuana should have kept the secret?
  • Did you feel sorry for the Abbess?
  • Did you get much sense that it was set in 1570 or was it timeless?
  • Was it a shame that Zuana was there – would she have been happier “outside”?

Will you be joining in with this read along and have you read The Help? I’m really enjoying my copy so I’d love to hear what you all think?


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