Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What we're reading: Dumplin'

I can't decide whether Julie Murphy has done something brilliant here or not. Let me explain my confusion:

My initial reaction was that it was a pretty good book with the potential to be a lot more.

I loved the synopsis of the book: Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean (nickname Dumplin') Dickson is comfortable in her own skin until she starts to doubt herself after Private School Bo, a hot former jock, shows interest in her. So she decides to take her self-confidence back by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant.

Things are not quite this cut and dried, though, and it's the mixed messages that initially diluted the power of the book for me. But then I discussed it with Anarda and examined it with new eyes, which made me wonder if I was wrong about my assessment of "pretty good with potential," that maybe it was a lot better than that and I wasn't seeing it.

I read the book because I share a point of view with its protagonist: I'm fat. I would say I've been fat my whole life, but that's not true--but I thought I was fat my whole life, which has the same effect on the psyche--or maybe worse, I don't know.

I'm saying all of this because I was hoping this book would address that issue for teens. And it did...but not consistently, not thoroughly, and sometimes kind of confusingly for the reader.

The protagonist, Willowdean Dickson, starts out strong: She seems okay with herself just the way she is, and also copes well with having a long-time best friend who's taller, thinner, and prettier--and the best friend (Ellen) is the best kind, who loves you because you're you, not because of the way you look, or the social favors you can bestow, which is a big deal when you're in high school, where people can be superficial.

Will's mom is a former Miss Clover City (Texas) Bluebonnet beauty pageant winner, and has spent a part of every year since her win running the pageant for those who have come after her. Her nickname for Willowdean is Dumplin', a name Will has resignedly embraced up until now; but when her mom calls her that in front of the class clown, a relentlessly mean individual, Will starts to question whether her mom understands how hurtful her attitudes towards Will's appearance can be.

So far, so good. Complex relationships and feelings--I like it. But then romance gets thrown into the mix, and this is where things started to go sideways for me. Will works at a local fast food joint, and when a gorgeous prep school jock named Bo gets a job there and makes it clear he finds Willow as attractive as she finds him, it throws her for a loop. Rather than be delighted that her breathless crush is reciprocated, his touch instead sends her into a tailspin of doubt and self-loathing. While I get how this could happen, for me it tended to negate all the "I love myself the way I am" stuff that came before.

Then Will also attracts the attention of Mitch, a guy she knows from school, with whom she would probably have had a nice relationship if it weren't for her feelings for Bo. I felt like the author was trying to say that fat girls don't have to settle for the random nice guy, they can aspire to the hottie, and while this may be true, for a girl who is supposed to be sensitive to the feelings of others, Willowdean treats Mitch rather callously.

It seems like more than half of the book is taken up with angsty obsessing about boys and romance, which is not how the story was set up. Finally (finally!), in a desperate measure to get her mojo back, Will decides to enter the Miss Clover City Bluebonnet pageant. I felt like this happened way too late in the book; preparing for a pageant is not an overnight thing, and since it is billed in the description as THE event that turns things around, I was surprised by how late it was left and how casually it was treated. Also, Will's decision to compete serves as inspiration for three other "outsider" girls at her school to follow her lead, and although she eventually bonds with them, I also didn't like the degree to which the author let Will be catty about them before that. (Also, I would have liked the book better if there were more in it about them and less about the oh-so-divine Bo!)

At this juncture in my thinking about the book, however, Anarda gave my process a different spin. One of the things that many people (including me) complain about is that YA books can be so cliched, that situations and people are too simplistic, drawn in black and white, with stereotypes instead of real people as characters. Maybe, then, all the complaining I'm doing about Willowdean's flaws and imperfections is wrong: She is, after all, presented as a real person, and real people are sometimes mean and catty. Everybody, no matter how sensitive they are to their own situation, finds someone else to look down on sometimes. Just because you are a fat outsider, it doesn't guarantee that you will be a nice person through and through, just like all jocks aren't arrogant airhead jerks, as they are often portrayed. Maybe it's actually more valid for Willowdean to be problematic and flawed. Perhaps my reaction to the book has been conditioned by all those cliches that I say I dislike but which I have grown to accept as a baseline for this kind of story! Perhaps Murphy elected not to idealize her characters, and tried to write this as if she really was Dumplin' with all her flaws.

So...in light of all this, would I recommend the book? Yes. I was originally going to say that it could have been a better book...but looking at it from my new perspective, maybe I'm wrong. I think I would have enjoyed it more if it had focused more on the pageant and less on the romance. But either way, applause to Julie Murphy for creating some complex and interesting characters, and for giving this seldom discussed topic the care and attention it deserves.

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