YA Book Reviews

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

I may have not liked this book that much, but dang, that cover is gorgeous. I honestly originally thought this was going to be a memoir of a drag queen or something of the sort, because a cover as powerful and poignant as that deserves a moving story to set in between its pages, with shocking humor and girl power shenanigans. Yes, there are drag queens, and they are absolutely, 100% the best part of this book. Up until the last 10% of the book, I felt more than a little disappointed by how unlikable and vapid I found Willowdean to be. However, it did pick up a lot towards the end, and actually made this book (if you skip the romantic bits honestly) worth reading.

Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean Dickson (dubbed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty queen mom) has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. With her all-American beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked…until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast-food joint. There she meets Private School Bo, a hot former jock. Will isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to Bo. But she is surprised when he seems to like her back.

Instead of finding new heights of self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets out to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant—along with several other unlikely candidates—to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does. Along the way, she’ll shock the hell out of Clover City—and maybe herself most of all.

With starry Texas nights, red candy suckers, Dolly Parton songs, and a wildly unforgettable heroine—Dumplin’ is guaranteed to steal your heart.

The first thing I noticed about this book was that on page 2, literally the second page of the novel, Will uses the phrase “at home in her own skin” to describe her tall and waifish best friend. Wait a second – that looks extremely familiar (see the first sentence in the blurb above.) I thought this book was about you and your fat positive attitude, Will?! It honestly tries to be, it tries so very hard – but it kept missing the mark and instead came out drenched in insecurities and petty jealousy.

“I know that fat girls are supposed to be allergic to pools or whatever, but I love swimming. I mean, I’m not stupid. I know people stare, but they can’t blame me for wanting to cool off. And why should it even matter? What about having huge, bumpy thighs means that I need to apologize?”

See? So body positive. Great message. Girl, you got it! Keep up that attitude!

“Millie wears a light yellow T-shirt and shorts set with little heart-shaped gems glued to the collar of her top. I wish there was a way for me to tell her all the ways she makes her life harder than it needs to be without me coming off as a bitch.”

Aaaaand you ruined it. Good job.

Honestly, it only got worse for me. She is constantly comparing herself to others, especially Elen, in both positive and negative ways. Over the summer she forms some sort of psuedo-relationship with Bo, but it’s not much more than the two of them making out behind the restaurant they both work at, and then they “break up” because he doesn’t tell her that he’s transferring to her school. She actually goes out of her way to quit her job and get a new one so that she won’t have to see him instead of actively confronting her problems with him. Then for the next 50 pages or so, she strings a super genuine and wonderful along while secretly bemoaning the fact that her and Bo aren’t together any more. Just tell him no! What is wrong with you, child?

The same issues come up with her friendships. She initially hates Ellen’s new friend Callie because she’s thin and a little obnoxious (to be fair, Callie is kind of a bitch who makes fat jokes later when she thinks Will can’t hear her) and goes on to twist her hair and bite her lip about a side comment Callie made about something Ellen didn’t tell her…but does she go and ask Ellen about it? No. Does she tell Ellen anything about her two-month makeout fest with Bo? No. What does she do? She hides it and whines privately, and then when Bo meets Ellen and El is like “wow, he’s kind of cute,” Will is like “omg I’m gonna be that girl” and I just wanted to throw the book across the room. Fast forward to when Will decides to enter the beauty pageant:

“Mom. If you don’t sign that form, you’re saying I’m not good enough. You’re saying that most every girl in that room right now is prettier and more deserving than me. That’s what you’re telling me.”

(this is after telling her mom: I am happy in my body, being fat isn’t stopping me from going on dates and having relationships with boys, a man won’t fix all my problems, your fatphobia is ridiculous can you stop for the love of God.) This is great, and this whole beauty pageant idea is excellent, and I am totally 100% here for it.

“You have to back out. El, for me, you’ve got to. Let me have this one thing.” “What? Let you have what? You can’t pick and choose who joins the ‘revolution’.” I hear the logic in her voice. I recognize the truth there. But if El entered, she could really win. And that’s why she could ruin this.

OH MY GOD WILL STOP BEING SO SELFISH, I know you deserve to have something positive going on that is about you for a change, but your friend is there for support and to have fun, and you just shot that idea right out of the water because you can’t handle that she could win. It’s not about winning, you dummy. You just said that yourself. It’s about taking a stand. Whether or not your best friend enters and wins shouldn’t matter because she’s your goddamn best friend. Ugh ugh ugh ugh ugh.

Luckily for me and literally everyone else in this book, after Will gets over all of the romantic drama and actually stops being a selfish twat, her relationship with Millie, Amanda, and Hannah (and finally Ellen again!) becomes the greatest thing worth fighting for. Hannah is one of my favorite things about this story because she never ceases to tell it like it is. Sometimes you need a friend to nod at appropriate times and say that boys are dumb and not worth it, but there are times where you definitely need someone to tell you you’re being a twat and nobody is here for that crap. This half-Dominican lesbian with buck teeth is here to tell you nobody will ever be here for that crap.

“’Nope,’ says Hannah. “I call bullshit. You don’t deserve to win anything or be in any pageant until you make the effort and do the work. Maybe fat girls or girls with limps or girls with big teeth don’t usually win beauty pageants. Maybe that’s not the norm. But the only way to change that is to be present. We can’t expect the same things these other girls do until we demand it. Because no one’s lining up to give us shit, Will.”

There are a lot of great messages and powerful, heartwrenching quotes from the book that really do make it worth reading and sticking out the tough bits. Personally, I was already kind of sick of the high school narrative before the love triangle and friend bullcrap and faux-positivity started, so this book really didn’t get above a single star for me until the drama ended and the good bits started getting real good. If you’re looking for less drama and more body-positive, hilarious, and endearing books, I’d recommend any of Laurie Notaro’s adult humor story collections, including It Looked Different on the Model and Autobiography of a Fat Bride. If you just want a better pageant story, I’d recommend Derby Girl. Until then, I hope you enjoyed my super-long rant, and remember to love yourself no matter what.

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