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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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Dumplin' - Julie Murphy

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: Pitched as a book about a fat girl who has always been at home in her skin, this book is really about Willowdean Dickson realizing she hasn't come to terms with her body all these years, and trying to achieve that.


Wish fulfillment. The contribution of this novel is that it's a reasonably well-written book where the heavy protagonist achieves her goals, and wins a happy life with a hot guy. We need books like that. But as a literary novel, the wish-fulfillment aspect took too much precedence over what could have been a more interesting plot. Also, the lack of gravitas of this book makes the slow pacing a bit uncalled for.


Willowdean's bland personality. Part of the problem is the Twilight Syndrome: Willowdean just isn't interesting or talented enough to win Edward...er, I mean Bo. I can totally believe a fat girl catching the attention of a sweet, handsome, kind, devoted guy if she's hilarious, or brilliant, or the best clarinet in the school's jazz band. Give me something. Will is insecure, has no hobbies, does very little schoolwork...There's one moment where Bo says why he loves her: because he can talk to her with no artifice. But that's a feature of friendship, not of attraction.


What happened. Willowdean (known as Will to her friends and Dumplin' to her mother) is a heavy girl who has recently lost her beloved, obese aunt, Lucy. Will's best friend, Ellen, has been her constant companion since they were little. When we enter their relationship, they're already starting to become more distant: Ellen has taken a job at Sweet Sixteen, a clothing shop that doesn't carry large sizes, and Will works at Harpy's, a hamburger joint. Ellen and her boyfriend, Tim, are preparing to have sex for the first time, and this makes Willowdean feel left behind: she doesn't have a significant other yet, and she knows her advice as a best friend will be limited because she's a virgin. Will's relationship with her mom is a bit analogous to her relationship with her weight: she thinks she's comfortable with it, but it hasn't been tested much. Will's mom is a former beauty queen who helps to organize the annual Blue Bonnet Beauty Pageant. Will has a crush on Bo, a hot boy she works with at the restaurant, and lo and behold he has a crush on her, too. Their relationship is limited to making out behind the dumpster at work, and driving to an abandoned, burned-out elementary school to make out after work. Will feels like Bo is hiding her, and she misjudges him as being a rich, private-school boy. Bo, meanwhile, doesn't know if he's ready for a relationship, because (as we learn later) he feels he used his previous girlfriend, Amber. (It's kind of hilarious that his one flaw is that he doesn't think he'll be a good enough boyfriend. Oh, and I guess he has a knee injury, too.) But the biggest impediment to their relationship is Will's self-loathing when Bo touches her body (back fat is mentioned a lot), and her sense that they'd never be able to appear in public without being teased. She breaks up with Bo, there are pages and pages of wheel-spinning teen angst, and much later she finds a registration form for the pageant from 1994 that she realizes her aunt Lucy had almost filled out. To honor Lucy, and to take back pride in her body, Will enters the pageant. She's not very serious about the preparations, but when a few other "outsider" girls see that she has registered, they sign up, too. (Millie, who is truly obese, which Will says means she has elastic waistbands rather than buttoned or zippered, like Will; Amanda, who has one leg shorter than the other and "Frankenstein" shoes; and Hannah, who is Dominican, gay, and has buck teeth.) Will realizes that she owes it to them to do a reasonable job of competing, but her heart is not in it, primarily because she's really not a pageant-type girl. A boy named Mitch becomes interested in her: he's more "possible" in Will's mind as a boyfriend, because he's a Big Guy--a tall but heavy football player. Mitch treats her well, and she has trouble keeping him at a distance. Bo begins to date Becca. Mitch encourages Will to do magic tricks as her talent, but readers already know she's going to end up singing the Dolly Parton song Jolene, and it's interminable to get to that point. But voilà, eventually, Will breaks the rules of the pageant by changing her talent on the day of the show: not actually singing Jolene, but lip-syncing it, dressed as a Dolly Parton impersonator. (I found this to be another kind of pathetic indication of her lack of talent: she's so devoid of hobbies that she lip-syncs the song.) Her performance is helped by Lucy's old friends--a drag-queen Dolly, and a bouncer at a gay club--and by some of the Dolly accoutrements that Ellen's mom owns. So that's the supposed twist of the book--her breaking the rules of the pageant--and is so dull as to be a head scratcher. Will also escorts Ellen down the aisle after Will was already disqualified--another stab at "revolution." Millie wins second runner-up, because she's actually pretty invested in this pageant stuff.


Ho hum. I found this book to be slow-paced and a bit disingenuous. It's touted as an empowering book about body acceptance, which is perhaps a problem with the marketing rather than the writing. So what's disingenuous for me? The fact that the protagonist's weight is the focus of the novel, but her relationship with food is completely skirted. What's dull about it? Both the wish-fulfillment aspect and the lack of real external conflict make the ending inevitable. The hottest boy in town immediately falls in love with Will, and the conflict is internal: Will feels repulsive in his arms for the first time in her life, and rejects him as a result. She also has a big-guy, big-hearted football player in love with her, too--poor Will. But luckily for her, Bo saves himself only for her. We always know that it's only a matter of time--that Willowdean is the hurdle, not Bo. If you read this book as a romance novel with a plus-size protagonist, it makes sense and is a valid contribution to YA literature, but Dumplin' certainly didn't feel like an important novel to me, or even a particularly honest one.

Will's nonexistent relationship with food. The fact is, most people in our American society--regardless of their BMI--worry pretty much daily about what they should or should not eat, and how what they eat will affect their weight. I find it unbelievable that a first-person narration by a heavy girl never showed her feelings about food, and practically never showed her eating anything. The few things we see her eat are normal and healthy (part of a salad with chicken made by her mom, tuna salad left in the fridge by her mom [which we don't see her eat], chips with Ellen on her bed, and a stolen bag of mini-chocolate chips that she seems to nurse through an entire week of being grounded). I understand that the point of the novel is that Will has for the most part accepted her weight, but it seems impossible to me that her relationship with food wouldn't still be complicated.
Good things. The handling of Ellen's first sexual experience seemed healthy to me. Will's "gray" character--particularly the fact that she's a normal teenage girl who says snarky things about other people, even as she demands respect, seemed believable. (In fact, her biggest rule is that it's not polite to comment on anyone's body but your own, and she violates that rule constantly.)
Weak things. Does Dolly Parton really not have an actually empowering song in her repertoire? The Jolene song just doesn't fit the resolution of the novel! It's about a woman who will be crushed to lose her man ("My happiness depends on you...") and is convinced that the prettier girl will steal him with the snap of her fingers. (And, gross, there's evidence that he's already thinking of Jolene: "He talks about you in your sleep. There's nothing I can do to keep from crying when he calls your name.") Also, in being just plain realistic, the novel somehow falls flat. The girls compete, and the biggest triumph is Millie's second-runner-up status; Ellen and Will become friends again but understand they'll also need distance in their relationship. In short, it's all very "day in the life." I had no sense of the strength of Will's relationship with Lucy, either, which is an important part of the plot. Part of the dilemma is the plot structure: Lucy is already dead, so we have only a handful of reminiscences to form our opinion of her, and she was something of a hermit, so she and Will didn't do much together outside of the house. And finally, there was a parallel drawn and then dropped between Mitch's lifelong relationship with his best friend (Patrick Thomas), and Will's relationship with Ellen. Or perhaps there was no parallel, and Patrick simply played the role of the two-dimensional bully.
Unrealistic thing. It was necessary for the plot but entirely unrealistic that the escorts were not part of the rehearsal-day run-through. It made the author's hand too obvious (the fact that Will didn't have an escort would have been discovered). 
Mistake. Will's mom won the pageant in 1997, and the oldest she could have been at the time was eighteen (the pageant is for ages fifteen to eighteen). That means she's a maximum of thirty-six now. So, um, she really can't be having hot flashes that make her crank the air conditioning, as Will mentions.
In sum. A perfectly fine romance novel. But I wish the complexity of Willowdean's relationship with food had been a more important feature of her struggle, perhaps in the place of that unnecessary secondary love interest. I also would have liked to see her win the love of a boy with the force of a beautiful personality, rather than just have the guy fall in love with her for no apparent reason.