There is a unique kind of agony and intensity attached to being a fat girl. I know. I've been one. And now, I'm a fat woman. And it's hard. Hard because you don't want to hate how you look, but you really hate how you look. Also, you want all the same things everyone wants, but you think you might not ever be able to have them. Just because of how you look. This probably isn't true for all fat girls (and women), but it's been true for me. So, reading Dumplin' by Julie Murphy, was a powerful, painful, and moving experience for me.
Before its publication, I read several descriptions of Dumplin' that made it sound like a campy, hilarious beauty pageant farce. That is not the experience I had reading Dumplin'. Yes, there are drag queens, and a fat girl protagonist, and Dolly Parton, and fast food jobs, and a beauty pageant. Still, it's the opposite of campy. Willowdean Dixon, whose mother calls her Dumplin', wants to be very confident despite the fact that she sees herself as a fat girl. Her mother is a former beauty queen and still very active with the local beauty pageant. She also sees Willowdean as a fat girl. For me, this was the most realistic part of this novel: Will's relationship with her mother. It's a loving, warm relationship. However, it's also complicated by the fact that her mother doesn't really approve of, like, or feel comfortable with Will's body. In fact, she and Will feel the same way about Will's body, but Willowdean really needs her mother to give her an 'OK'. It's the most painful thing, knowing someone you love so much won't ever think you're beautiful.
I might be too close to this one to give it a fair review. Will is a flawed, perplexing protagonist. She is truly a teen girl. She doesn't know what she wants, how she feels, or how to deal with all the changes that are happening in her life. It's sometimes very frustrating...but, it's also very real. What teenage girl, faced with romance and breaking friendships and a death in the family wouldn't begin to behave erratically?
Willowdean is a really likable heroine whose sense of humor and insecurity are completely relatable. She is appealing enough to pull others into her orbit. She might doubt her own magnetism (and beauty) but it's pretty clear to everyone else. She suffers from the same self-blindness that many YA heroines do (see: Katniss Everdeen). Her ultimate redemption, though, is that she can channel a "fake it til you make it" attitude. In the end, we all need that some days. No matter how we look on the outside.
I would recommend this novel to ANYONE who hasn't always felt totally comfortable in her own skin (and especially to all those fat girls and fat women and former fat girls). If you enjoyed any of these titles, you'll probably love Dumplin':
Blubber by Judy Blume
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going
The DUFF by Kody Keplinger
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman