Dumplin’ Review: YA vs Taboo [spoiler free]

Go big or go home: Girls learning to love themselves (but no one else) and leads to a little bit of a problematic mess…

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[Julie Murphy // Harpercollins 2015]

Earlier this year I had a lecture on writing Young Adult fiction by a beautiful human called Fox, who tried to impart on us the importance of tackling taboo subjects (like gender, suicide and body image) in YA, as for many teens it can be the only helpful voice they’ll experience. I completely agree with this, I think it’s so important that we create a safe, self affirming, inclusive space within YA where people can discover themselves without fear of judgement. So oh my goodness, imagine my excitement when my fellow YA enthusiast Beth starts telling me about a book taking on body image, with a gang of kick ass girls who don’t give a flying f*** about what people think of them who enter a beauty pageant. YES PLEASE. YES. MY GOD YES. I wanted so much from Dumplin’ but what I got was mehhh, borderline worrying.

“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(something we’ve all experienced), 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.” – Goodreads

An overweight female protagonist taking on the world with her band of misfits by entering a beauty pageant is one hell of an elevator pitch. Unfortunately, for me, Dumplin’ just doesn’t deliver.

Firstly, Willowdean is just not a relatable character, she’s selfish, she’s judgemental, her narrative voice is run of the mill and a lot of her decisions don’t really make sense. For most of us what keeps us reading a book is a likable main character, Dumplin’ does not make it over this first hurdle. Willowdean had me pulling my hair out, her decisions make no sense and she’s a horrible person (but she’s not even that captivating Jaime Lannister kind of horrible)   – to her best friend, her mother, her gang of outcasts, and the men in her life. She was not a character who inspired me, or that I wanted to succeed – I just didn’t fall in love with her.

The one thing I did find relatable, however, was Will’s constant fluctuation of confidence.

I think Murphy got across the idea that it is possible to love your body one day and hate it the next, that’s completely okay and nothing to be ashamed of really . The problem of grief was also dealt with healthily in this book, we watch Willowdean dealing with the constant ache that comes with missing someone everyday, and knowing you’ll never get them back. However, other themes that Murphy touched on however were not so well done.

For me the most worrying part of this book was the hypocrisy, I’ve seen many people recommend this book as a guidebook for young overweight girls – but I’m worried that this book contains too many unhealthy attitudes to allow Willowdean’s character be considered a role model. Willowdean talks about the importance of being comfortable in your skin, but then goes on to mock a friend for being fatter than her, mocking another girl for being a ‘twiggy bitch’, making continued comments shaming thinner girls, and also makes odd and insulting comments about her disabled friend. I honestly don’t think this is the kind of behavior we should be promoting – as one of the characters states ‘you can’t pick and chose who joins the revolution.’ We can’t promote the idea that if you’re confident with your body you can go around shaming other people – or even that the way to love yourself is to put others down.

Another issue, with Dumplin’ I’m not quite sure if we have another case of way too much plot given away in the blurb, or not enough plot in the actual book. EVERY blurb and synopsis I’ve read for this book talks about Willowdean entering the beauty pageant but this doesn’t happen until halfway through the book at least. The big reveal was definitely lost, as was the tension as she sits uming and ahing about whether she’ll enter said pageant. To be honest nothing much really happens in this book, and the ending was no where near as climactic as I hoped it would be, it just kind of fizzled out at the end. I didn’t even want to know more. The plot was forgettable, just like the characters and just like the narrative voice.

This review probably sounds quite harsh but I was expecting a novel full of sass and positivity and musings society’s imposed ‘perfect body’ but what Dumplin gave me was 250 pages of moaning about boys, and then some body positivity (and shaming) sprinkled on top. This book had the potential to be genre defining and pave the way for a generation of  ass-kicking confindant women of all sizes, but instead we’re given with something a little more sour.

HOWEVER

There are some great quotes in this book. They just don’t seem to be integrated into the book, and feel like they were put in it so that they could end up on the cover eventually. Another positive about this book is that it tackles an important  issue, although it doesn’t do this well, and there is way too much body shaming in this book for it to be venerated – doesn’t mean that it’s not helping to break the taboo.

To end on a positive note, things I liked about this book included; the opening couple of chapters, the way it dealt with complex family relationships, and the weaving of Dolly Parton motif throughout the novel. There are also fantastic quotes in this novel, for example,  “There’s something about swimsuits that make you think you’ve got to earn the right to wear them. Really, the criteria is simple. Do you have a swimsuit? Put a swimsuit on it.” I wanted so bad for the rest of the book to be like this.

4.25/10

Have you read Dumplin’? Let me know what you thought about it in the comments (i’d love to chat)!

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2 thoughts on “Dumplin’ Review: YA vs Taboo [spoiler free]

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