There is at least one positive thing about the adaptation of a book to the big screen: it gives publicity to a work you might not have come across otherwise. Push is the debut novel of the poet Sapphire, which was published in 1996. It was later renamed Precious after the 2009 film adaptation by Lee Daniels and its success at the Sundance Film Festival the same year.
Sapphire worked as a social worker and a teacher of reading and writing in Bronx and Harlem before pursuing a writing career. She digged in this experience to create the characters of her novel.
The story is narrated by 16-year-old Precious, who, pregnant with her second child from her father and abused by her mother, is expelled from school. She is illiterate but has always enjoyed school, and been eager to learn. She enters an "Each One Teach One" adult GED program and meets several other women. For the first time in her life, she can learn, she is listened to and helped, and she meets friends, helping her through her new life.
There is one word to describe this book: powerful. You get knocked out at the very first page. The technique used, to write english as 'bad' as Precious speaks it, makes us better understand her constant alienation from the people around her. Not only is she abused by both her parents, but she doesn't fit at school or in any other social environment. A translation of this alienation is Precious' physical appearance: she is obese and black. In American society today, even after some improvements in laws and mentalities, the ethnic origin and an appearance different from current beauty cannons presented in all medias (i.e. young, white, thin (skinny?), etc.*) are still a motive of rejection and result in alienations.
As Precious learns, her writing gets better and better, her opinion of herself improves. She realises that her experience is far from being unique and that talking about it, and listening to other's experiences make her realise that, for the first time in her life, she isn't alone. In the film, it is translated by the color tones of the images: from very dark images to very bright.
In the British newspaper The Independent, the journalist Susie Boyt wondered "what exactly the point of committing all this horror to paper was". Well, of course, one certainly enjoys more reading the Devil wears Prada. But a story like Push might be put among the likes of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou or The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison as books which might present horrible if not unbelievably atrocious scenes, but which need to be read.
A book written in 1969 as an autobiography (the first of six volumes) by the incredible Maya Angelou is studied in school because of its socio-political message of how a woman grows up to be a woman in an extremely racist and sexist environment. A book like The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, which has been repeatedly attacked for being part of school curriculums, relates the story of Pecola, a young black girl constantly pointed out as ugly (because in this society beautiful = white), and whose only dream is to become blond with the bluest eyes in the world. You follow her evolution throughout the book, where detaching herself from reality is the only way she is able to cope with it.
But Push takes place today. And this is probably the hardest part to believe for people living in a priviledged environment. The fact that it is a fiction doesn't make the story complete fabrication. Everybody, reading, would ask him/herself why, after giving birth at 12 years old to her father's child, no one tried to do anything.
I have read a very frightening statistics in an essay, it is estimated that in the developed rich countries from the West, one in six women has or will be raped during the course of her life. One in six**. Not talking about it or avoiding reading about it on the base that it is horrific is like putting a blindfold on while you're driving. Don't complain when you hit a tree and kill a kid.
This book is very rich in the sense that many themes are developed, which are usually ignored or avoided in mainstream literature: the appearance of women (and I am not talking about imaginary Bridget Jones' like "flaws") ; the relations with male figures (may it be a father, brother, boss...) ; the meaning of life (yup, some people do deal with harder issues in life than high heels and lipsticks) ; teen pregnancy (you see this in the episode with nurses who immediately think Precious is to blame for her pregnancy); and many other themes. People obviously perceive books differently and that is why I am sure that everybody will have something to learn from this novel.
* Just to give an example: the magazine Vanity Fair does every year a cover of the new it-girls and it-boys in the cinema industry. As always, Vanity Fair considers variety when you have a blonde next to a brunette next to a redhead in the picture. Many have for instance criticised the notable absence of Academy Award nominee Gabourey Sidibe for her role as Precious and the presence of virtually unknown actresses in comparison. The "New Hollywood" is young, white, and painfully skinny (look at those legs!).
** Obviously this is a statistics which has to be interpreted with much much care. I take it from a french essay on the History of Women in the West (Histoire des femmes en occident, Tome V. Le XXème siècle, sous la direction de Françoise Thébaud, Plon, 1992, 2002, Introduction de la nouvelle édition, p.18). It just gives an idea of the phenomenon, which is very far from being rare, even in the most developed societies.