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LizzieBennet

Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

SPOILER ALERT!

Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens - Libba Bray
***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
 
One-sentence summary: a very talented author has written something of a satirical hot mess--for me it was too long, too chock-full of didactic messages, yet also harbored a few mixed messages. 
 
Audiobook. I listened to this, with no print copy at hand, and Bray did an amazing narration job. I was hugely impressed with how poised, articulate, and animated she was, and how able to recall so many different voices on the fly. Her dramatic training really shows. That said, the reading had some of the same problems the book had: Bray crammed in way too much, did incredibly better than could be expected given the circumstance that she put herself in, but eventually got overwhelmed and left us with the impression of Too Much. Her New Zealand accent and English accents were sometimes tentative and inconsistent, and it took a couple of chapters for Ladybird Hope's upper-Midwest accent to kick in full time. Occasionally when switching between multiple girls she lost track for just a second of the character's voice. But then, what author could ever read with the same theatricality and confidence that she did--what author could even attempt all those multiple accents and timbres and be quite as successful as she was? And how cool is it to hear the author's interpretation and understanding of her own work--especially when read with such flare, not in a relative monotone (see: Sara Zarr's recording of her Lucy Variations)? The tonal sound effects (e.g. to indicate the beginning and end of a footnote) and the background tunes for the commercials were excellent, too.
 
This book needed pruning. It was way too long--and especially too long to sustain such a shrill, satirical voice. If Bray had stuck with what seemed to be her original premise (judging from the first few chapters), it could have been great: beauty queens crash on an island, begin to despair of being rescued, and slowly come to terms with real life--who are they without the pageant and their looks? Who do they want to be? Why did they buy into beauty culture in the first place? This could have been--should have been--the same story Bray told in the interview after the recording. She recounted how, after her car accident (and thirteen surgeries) between high school and college, she realized that she was never going to be in the "pretty" game again. Before the accident she had been one of those teenagers influenced by society into believing that if she lost ten pounds, if she learned to do makeup a certain way, if she cut her bangs, if she grew her bangs out, she'd be happy and "life would start." After some depression (bordering on suicidal, she says) in her freshman year, and after learning that writing helped give her emotional strength, she felt somehow liberated by the mutilation and scars (she had lost an eye): being disqualified from the pretty game meant she had to figure out who she was going to be now. It's a message that you wish all girls would learn without having a car accident--that your body is fragile and a gift, that what's of value is inside; that in order to be happy you have to cultivate your personality, your smarts, your kindness, and some real skills; that you should search for a passion in your career or hobby that will inspire you for a lifetime. 
 
This reader craved depth. Had Bray pursued this "smaller" goal (and it's lofty!), her satirical voice would still have worked, and she could have kept the footnote asides and the commercials. After all, the kitschy advertising/marketing tone is thematically appropriate for a story about how society plants insidious ideas into women's heads using media. Meanwhile, focusing the scope of the story more would have given Bray an opportunity to really explore each of the characters. As it is, they're just empowered versions of their stereotypical selves at the end. And how stereotypical were they? Petra, the transgendered character, was the only one who seemed not to be, and Taylor Rene seemed on the verge of being a deep character until Bray threw her away in an Apocalypse Now, drug-induced psychotic break--which I think was erroneously trying to celebrate Taylor's becoming one with her environment and eschewing modern society altogether. Otherwise we have the acerbic feminist journalist, the smart black girl who wants to go to med school, the bimbo who seems dumb but has occasional profound insights, the rough-around-the-edges lesbian with the heart of gold, the plucky deaf girl...
 
How it became Too Much. So instead of sticking with this commentary on what it means to be female in modern society, Bray brought in the ridiculous evil mega-corporation plot, where The Corporation (the most unimaginative, heavy-handed name in the world) plans to sell illegal arms to the Republic of ChaCha, in order to..what was it? Manufacture their questionably safe products there? Am I confusing this with Zoolander? (Remind me to talk about how this book also felt like a tired mash-up of pop culture icons, starting with Zoolander and ending with a parody of James Bond.) I think Bray might have been trying to "up the stakes," by showing that politics is an intimate bedfellow with corporate greed, which in turn causes companies to infuse awful messages into advertising. But tackling both corporate greed and "girl power" (the latter is the main message of the book by the time you get to the end) is an example of the Too Much I was talking about--pick one to explore. There are so many messages in this book--it's so didactic, it uses such a sledgehammer to get them across, it's so relentlessly satirical about things it's also deadly serious about--it ultimately treats everything superficially and in such a slapstick way that our compassion for the characters is sabotaged and we're oddly less receptive to the messages. 
 
Speaking of slapstick. I felt a vacillation between seriousness and silliness that also undermined Bray's messages. Satire requires some silliness, of course, but at times Beauty Queens was written like a cartoon: Petra's mom's surgery and chemotherapy are not covered by insurance because "breasts are a pre-existing condition"; the snake eats Sosie in one gulp, and then she fights (explodes) her way out of it; Mary Lou and Tane are lowered over a Pirana tank a la James Bond, rather than just shot; Harris spills the entire Corporation plot to his captors while he's tied up ("You sly dog! You got me monologuing!"); Adina swings a hairdryer by its cord and knocks a Black Shirt out cold; the snake bats the gun out of Harris's hand with its tail before attacking him; Miss New Mexico spends not only the entire book but apparently the rest of her life with a tray table embedded in her forehead (with no infection).
 
Contradictory messages. Bray also never fully rejects the messages she is preaching against. If looks don't matter, why is the dictator Mo-Mo's short stature "humorously" belabored (he's 5'5" when wearing his favorite blue-suede platform Elvis shoes)? Is this funny, or falling prey to the stereotype that short men compensate by being power hungry, or even that short men are simply ridiculous? Why are the pirate boyfriends all uniformly hot? Can't girls fall in love with (or have sex with) sensitive dweebs? There is also the heavy-handed point that girls can be kick-ass and also "feminine," but the femininity is portrayed in excruciatingly traditional ways (makeup, decorating their huts, sewing a "help" sign with sequins). Why does Bray bother to describe the outfits of the girls along with their future accomplishments in the Epilogue? Why are they doing a runway walk and girl-power fist pumps and ninja kicks? Why is it that contemporary feminism pushes girls to be both serious and glamorous? For instance, I think there's a real argument that high heels are a kind of subjugation of women--one that women have unfortunately embraced--but a contemporary feminist would say "Wear what makes you happy." Rather than telling girls, "Your choices aren't wrong if they make you feel good about yourself," how interesting would it be to ask why makeup and skimpy outfits might make a teenage girl feel good about herself (or why she believes that they do)? Moreover, let's go a step deeper and find out whether sexualizing or objectifying yourself (which much of fashion does) really makes you happy--and I mean, fundamentally, love-yourself happy. 
 
Am I taking this too seriously? Wait, is Beauty Queens actually hilarious, "big, messy art, with a throughline of pleasure, rather than pretension" as my reading buddy claims? Are there in fact themes you can talk about endlessly without coming to a conclusion? Is "The Corporation" the worst name ever, or is Bray satirizing people who satirize corporations? I think I could totally get behind my friend's sentiment...if the book had been 250 pages. To me it felt much too long to maintain its glib tone without becoming shallow, especially in the character-development department. At 400 pages, your cerebral cortex begins to crave depth. Bray definitely has the writing chops to write the book I wanted--she's great with language. And maybe the key is whether it's hilarious or not to the reader. It was amusing to me, but not laugh-out-loud funny. I saw lack of depth where my friend saw endless possibility for discussion. Bray bit off serious topics and didn't chew any of them beyond stereotypes. I didn't see "satire of satires" of corporations, I saw her being simplistic and reaching for the "easy"--everything felt too didactic to invite deep literary criticism.
 
How many coincidences are acceptable? There probably isn't a single answer to that question but in this book there were too many. The huge coincidence is of course the fact that the girls crash-land on the very same island that is home to The Corporation's secret volcano lair. (That volcano lair was thought up by Bray's then tween son); and of course we have the hot teenage TV pirates getting shipwrecked on the very same island the girls crashed on (what a busy "deserted" island!); Petra is J.T. Woodland of Boyz Will B Boyz; Ladybird, the former pageant winner and Taylor's heroine, is in cahoots with The Corporation and with Mo-Mo, and running for president.
 
Small irritations:
 
1. There were several omissions that were not believable, and only served to move the plot along: 
 
a. When the girls first see the totems, it doesn't occur to anyone that the indigenous population might still exist, even though the girls never fully explore the island. Why do they presume the natives are all dead and gone?
 
b. When Mary Lou meets Tane for the first time (Bray mispronounces his name, by the way--the New Zealand pronunciations is Tah-neh), her first question is not "How did you get here?" She doesn't try to enlist his help getting off the island. She doesn't tell the other girls about him. I don't believe her embarrassment about her "wild woman" instincts would override her desire for survival after months of being stranded on an island.
 
c. Similarly, Jennifer and Sosie have evidence in the temple of someone recently being there--a food supply and weapons--but don't tell the others.    
 
d. No one searches for Taylor until they're about to leave the island, or tries to figure out why she's behaving erratically when she stumbles into camp. Wouldn't they be alarmed and want to help her? By the point of her psychotic break, the troupe was a cohesive, caring unit. I found myself thinking, "This must be a plot device so that Taylor can swoop in at the end, saving the day with weapons or skills we'll find she developed on her own." If you count Miss Miss, I was right.
 
2. Minor research quibble: can you make tar pitch from anything but pine trees or birch trees? (I presume the island would have neither.)