Who knew I would enjoy a book about a small-town Texas girl with an unabashed love for Dolly Parton taking on the town beauty pageant so much? ‘Twas a Friday night after work a few weeks ago in which I sat down on the couch, cracked opened this book, and didn’t do anything else until the book was finished. Dumplin’ is the book that teenage me would’ve loved and frankly, needed. But ’tis ok, I’m happy to have read it as an adult!Willowdean, or Will for short, is an overweight teenage girl who’s reasonably confident about her body for a girl her age. She’s smart, sassy, tighter than tight with her BFF Ellen (described as an “All-American beauty.” Read: skinny) who shares her love of all things Dolly, and nursing a mutual attraction with Bo, her handsome co-worker, at the local fast food joint, Harpy’s. She helps take care of the house with her mom, who works full-time on both a regular job and as head of the Clover City beauty pageant. Will has never entered, let alone been encouraged to enter, but with a rag-tag group of friends, takes on Clover City’s perceptions of what it means to be beautiful.
What I loved about this book was how real of a character Willowdean is. Yes, it’s maddeningly frustrating that she freaks out and rebuffs Bo after a couple months of post-work midnight smooches on the basis of that she thinks she’s not Bo’s type. Despite that Bo tells her again and again that yes, he’s attracted to her. Will may act unafraid of what people think of her, but that doesn’t mean she still doesn’t experience moments of doubt and insecurity brought on by the internalization of what society has told her about body size.
Dumplin’ also shows us how fraught relationships are with people’s insecurities and misconceptions. Will and Ellen, established as lifelong BFFs, experience a rift. It starts when Ellen befriends new co-workers who Will (correctly) ascertains that they think that “All-American Beauty” Ellen shouldn’t be friends with her, and it breaks open into a gaping chasm when Will gets upset that Ellen’s entering the pageant too, despite Ellen’s insistence that she has done so in solidarity with Will, who displays her nasty side and proclaims Ellen can’t enter the pageant. Definitely teenage girl drama, but I love it when authors allow their characters to be selfish and make egotistical choices.
Along with Willowdean are 3 other girls who are not conventionally pretty but are inspired by Will’s fighting the skinny (wo)man. And with the encouragement of drag queens, they prepare to take on Clover City’s pageant, much to Will’s mother’s mortification. For a moment, it seems like Will may not be able to enter the pageant, as it requires a parent’s approval, and with her mother being in charge of the pageant and her and the pageant’s “reputation” at sake, Will’s mom waffles, but eventually relents at letting her daughter enter. It’s sad and frustrating that Will deal with this even from her own mother, and it doesn’t help that they’re both reeling from the passing of her late aunt, who Will adored and in turn was one of Will’s greatest supporters. But again, these characters were just so real in their actions and words that at times, I felt like I was in Clover City too!
If anything, this book zigs and zags all over the place, but delightfully so, from Will and Bo’s initial liaisons (nothing over pg, this is a YA novel) to Ellen and Will’s rift to the pageant all while Will and her mother hash out life post-Aunt Lucy. Dumplin’ is truly an excellent book about what it means to be a teenage girl whose body doesn’t conform to societal expectations. And despite the YA label, I recommend it for all ages.