I now realize that just because everyone says a book or a movie is good, doesn’t make it so.
There was so much hoopla over Precious, the movie about a black, abused, illiterate teenage girl living in 1980s Harlem, this past winter. Earlier this month, the move also received four Oscar nominations. While I didn’t see the movie, I thought I would re-read the book the movie is based on, entitled Push by Sapphire.
The story of the main character, Precious Jones, is so heartbreaking that it made you feel like you had to at least like the book about her life. Precious is sexually abused by her both her parents, impregnated twice by her father, is overweight and, as was mentioned above, cannot read. Her life is pretty much hell until she starts going to an alternative school where she gets literate, learns to express herself through writing and starts building her life into a semblance of normalcy.
The story itself is gripping; who doesn’t want to read about someone who overcomes these odds? But the manner in which Sapphire tells Precious’ story feels like a rather bad imitation of The Color Purple (Precious even references that book’s main character, Celie). It’s a soap opera, in which characters act the way they do because the story needs to go in a particular direction. Some scenes are so melodramatic to the point of being satirical, at which point I’m trying not to laugh because the subject matter is quite serious.
The depiction of Precious’ mother, Mary, is a perfect case in point.
She is an evil, nasty person that doesn’t even seem like a human being. All she does is eat fattening foods that she forces Precious to cook for her, watches television and collects welfare checks. In every scene, she is either berating Precious about “stealing her man”, beating her up (she even beats her while she is going into labor with her first child), or threatening to beat her up.
Oh, and for some random reason Mary has terrible body odor, too. Because, you know, if you’re evil, you have to be smelly, too.
When we come to a point in the story where the author could shed some light on why she abused her daughter and allowed her to be raped, Sapphire lets us down. Mary’s rambling excuses make no sense and the reader walks away from the book thinking Mary is just completely insane.
Mary is the typical, one-dimensional, super-duper evil person, and therefore, not a very interesting character. Why? Because there is no clear motivation for her behavior. This is weak storytelling. Everyone has a motive for why they do something, even when that something is very, very bad.
People like Precious exist. But the very real issues of child abuse, poverty, drug abuse and illiteracy are unfortunately overshadowed by all the melodrama and bad characterization.