Friday, March 26, 2010

Audiosynced: When the narrator doesn't work

In the effort to keep abreast of the hot titles circulating and in hopes of making it to my local library's book club (which didn't happen), I finally got hold of Katherine Stockett's The Help on audio. Notice the "finally" in that statement, and you will understand why I didn't make it to the book club.

I'm still not quite done with listening to it, as it is 15 discs long. It is, as Janssen put it, a quick read but because I'm listening, it is taking longer than I'd hoped. But, I've heard enough to discuss a little about what's working and what isn't.

The Help, for those of you in the dark, is a story told through multiple voices about being "the help" in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter, a white woman, is interviewing the local help to write her first book, and presumably, the help -- African American women who do the housework for wealthy and/or helpless white women -- are giving her insight into their lives. Stockett's story uncovers a myriad of worlds within worlds, and the story itself is fascinating as it is at once the story and a story about a story. The voices and the setting are engrossing and engaging. And, obviously, since it's southern fiction, I'm pretty much in love. It's quite a painful story, but it is done so tactfully that it never feels like it panders or lessens the real issues at stake.

On audio, there are multiple narrators: Cassandra Campbell, Octavia Spencer, Bahni Turpin, and Jenna Lamia. Does the last one sound familiar? It should.

Let me say, I think this is absolutely one of those books that is better read to you than read silently. The narrators really set the scene and with their deep southern accents and their dialects, it is unmistakably 1962 Jackson, Mississippi. I'm finding myself falling into the story deeply and really caring about each of the characters. I feel along with Aibilene and Minny, as well as Skeeter. In the scene with Minny in the bathroom after discovering why her employer has been so sullen, the audio heightens the tension and the fear and shame in a way that would no way compare in print. This was a moment I literally needed to stop the car and stare off in shock because of the utter emotion the audio imbued in the scene.

Though I'm mostly enamored with the audio, there is one thing bothering me: Jenna Lamia's performance. She was amazing on Saving CeeCee Honeycutt as an 11-year-old girl. But in The Help, she plays Skeeter, a 23-year-old college graduate and she sounds identical. Her voice is much too young and immature for the role; even though Skeeter IS immature, the voice is not quite deep enough for me, and I find that this is impacting the experience of the book itself. Readers for Aibilene and for Minnie are so strong and spot-on with age, location, and race, but Skeeter stands out in a less-than-spectacular manner.

Despite Lamia having a large part of the book, I am going to continue listening for the sheer pleasure that listening to the book has brought into the story itself. I'm afraid that Lamia's earlier performance has tinged my listening to her, but I do think even without thinking about her as an 11-year-old, I'd still believe the voice is much too young for this story. Though she's a hot name and does a fantastic southern voice, I think that the reading could have been better done by someone else.

I often wonder if I had made the book discussion, whether or not anyone else listened to the book rather than read it. I think that the book groups who can talk about the listening experience would have a great additional element to discuss when it comes to the story itself. Who reads and how they read it really does make a huge difference, and for me, I'm going to remember this book for being 2/3 well read and 1/3 a bit too juvenile. I do have to say, though, I am very glad that the producers didn't rush this one out as soon as it became a hit. It's clear as a listener this was a well-planned audio book production, as there are no quality issues with sound or rendering. It flows smoothly and it is quite easy to follow whose perspective we are in.

Have you listened to this one? What do you think? Do you think your experience with the book would have been different with a reading versus a listening?

6 comments:

  1. I just finished it on audio as well, and felt that Skeeter was definitely the weak link, in terms of the three narrators. I talked about this a little more in my review (bit.ly/bxo4T9), but I agree with you that this book was probably better heard than read, particularly because I don't think my own imagination would have done justice to the rich southern accents. What did you think of the narrator for the benefit scene?

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  2. I listened to this one last summer and discussed it briefly and in the context of other stuff I was reading/listening to/watching (http://librarylea.wordpress.com/2009/06/22/what-im-reading/). I hadn't hear the actor that read for Skeeter in anything else before so I can't comment on whether or not she sounds the same, but I do clearly remember her voice and how unremarkable it was. Maybe she was our baseline and all the other voices veered off from that. I don't think I really believe that, it just makes a pretty chart when I visualize it in my head. I think Skeeter sounded bored or disengaged a lot, and remember thinking that was weird, but I did really love this audiobook.

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  3. I finally got to the benefit section, and I don't get the new narrator. I understand this is a third-person perspective, but the new voice is so outside the rest of the narrators in the audio. It doesn't work.

    I think you're right Lea: Skeeter is disengaged. I think Minny is the best reader, by far. Comparing the two readers is a real contrast in engagement, in character, and in listener invitation.

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  4. Wow, I couldn't disagree more and I think hundreds of rabid audiobook fans would have a bone to pick with you over this one. Lamia is one of the best in the business, and she hits another home run with Skeeter. Every reader on "The Help" was perfectly cast. Remember, Skeeter is a recent college graduate. Lamia's voice has a youthful quality which makes her perfect for YA, but she ably infuses her older characters with wisdom and poise. She also WON the Audie award this year for best solo female narration. I hardly think she is the "weak link." Just one fan's opinion.

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  5. Which is precisely why I said I think my listening to her as an 11-year-old in CeeCee Honeycutt impacted my opinion. I thought performance wise, she was wonderful, though I still believe she sounded young for 23. I love Lamia as a narrator, but as a listener, that was my thought -- and obviously, as you pointed out, others have not felt that way.

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  6. I couldn't agree more that this is book that is best listened to rather than read.

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