Sunday 25 September 2016

#CBR8 Book 105: "Dumplin'" by Julie Murphy

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 2 min
Rating: 3.5 stars

Willowdean "Will" Dickson is a teenager in a small town in Texas, with nothing much to recommend it, except being home of the oldest beauty pageant in the state (possibly the country, I don't remember). The Miss Teen Bluebonnet is a big deal and Will's mother's biggest claim to fame is that she won it when she was young, and still fits into the evening dress she wore. She now wears it every year, as she presents the pageant. Will is not skinny like her mother, she's fat and this is something she's not actually bothered about much of the time. Despite her mother's many attempts at putting her on diets, and fears for her health, Will is fairly confident in herself and doesn't care what others think of her.

Will's beloved aunt, Lucy, was very obese and died about a year ago from a heart attack. Will and Lucy shared a love for Dolly Parton, and it was because of this that Will met her best friend, Ellen. They both love Dolly immensely, and both miss Lucy a lot. Having shared everything growing up, however, the two girls are starting to grow apart. Ellen has been dating Tim for ages, and is ready to take things to the next level. Will is supportive, but inwardly panicking. If El has sex, while Will has yet to even kiss a boy, what will they really have to talk about any more?

There is a boy in question that Will wouldn't mind kissing at all. Bo, a handsome private school kid who works with her at the local fast food place surprisingly starts taking an interest in Will over the summer, and soon they seem to be making out in an abandoned parking lot after every shift. Yet excited as Will is about this, she doesn't tell El, and while normally completely comfortable in her own skin, she gets deeply self-conscious about her body every time Bo touches her. She's also worried about what other people will say if they see them together - because why would a gorgeous guy like Bo want to be with a girl like her?

As summer is coming to an end, Will discovers that Bo will be transferring to her high school, but didn't tell her. Nor does he seem to want to acknowledge her as anything but a colleague when they meet at the Mall when he's there with his family. Angry because her deepest fears have been confirmed (Bo is ashamed to be seen with her and wants to keep their relationship secret), Will breaks up with him. She still hasn't told El, who is nonetheless noticing her friend behaving strangely every time she sees the cute new guy.

Mitch, one of the school's star football players, asks Will out and seems to like him a lot. She's flattered by the attention and agrees, even though she's in no way over Bo, and doesn't feel anything but platonic affection for Mitch.

Needing a shake-up in her life, Wil enters the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant and inadvertently becomes an inspiration for Millie, Amanda and Hannah, other outcast girls at the school. Sadly, fuelled by her jealousy at El having made friends with several of the "cool" girls in school over the summer, and her increasing insecurities, she has a massive argument with El (because she too joins the pageant) and has to navigate the next few months completely estranged from her BFF.

I'd heard a lot of good things about Dumplin' online, and was happy to pick it up in an 2 for 1 sale at Audible a while back. It's nice to have a teen heroine who describes herself as fat, and while I've seen criticism that the book isn't as body positive as purported because Will occasionally has misgivings about her own weight and makes mean digs at thinner girls more than once, I don't think that's fair. Willowdean is a teenager, and there is not a single teenager alive who isn't self-conscious on occasion, no matter what they look like or how much they weigh. Of course she feels jealousy and is bitchy when she feels insecure. That's not even exclusive to teenagers, but when constantly hormone-fuelled, it's difficult to be zen-like and forgiving all the time. Frankly, it makes Will a more complex and believable character that she's jealous, judgemental, petty and stupid on occasion.

I thought the main conflict of this book was going to be that Willowdean, a teenage girl who didn't exactly fit the beauty pageant contestant looks, joining the pageant her mother once won. Her entering the contest doesn't happen until almost halfway through the book, though, and most of the book is just about Will living her life and trying to come to terms with her aunt's death and her and her mother's different approaches to grieving. The structure of the story is one of the things I didn't really like so much, it's a bit all over the place, and the book could have benefited from more structure.

I didn't really understand what was so great about Bo, although I liked him better towards the end of the book when he seemed to have figured out that he'd been an ass earlier and realised he was going to have to shape up and really court Will properly. I thought Mitch was a total sweetie, and was not at all happy with the way Will treated him. She kept stringing him along because she liked the attention, but should have been honest with him after their first date was disappointing. She also treated El appallingly during the pageant sign-up and should have made more of an effort to try to see her friend's side of things. I was wholly and completely on El's side in that conflict, but teenagers are complete idiots most of the time, so I can also forgive Will (who grovels very satisfyingly later).

Besides, if Will had had El at her side the whole time, she wouldn't have made new friends in the oddballs who insist on joining the Miss Bluebonnet pageant as well. Millie, Amanda and Hannah are all even stranger and less popular than Will, and early in the book, she shows that she can be just as prejudiced in her opinions of them as the more popular kids. Spending more time with them and really getting to know them is very good for Will, though, and I would have liked the book more if there was less of a focus on the love triangle and more on the various female friendships.

I've read a lot of YA this summer and most of it, I enjoyed more than this one. It's well worth a look, though, if nothing else because of the different setting and the nice explorations of friendship.

Judging a book by its cover: The simple black cover with Willowdean portrayed in her red pageant evening gown, head back and arms outstretched, is a nice one. Nothing too elaborate and without revealing any facial features, so the reader can create their own mental image of the protagonist.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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