Friday 4 March 2016

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Review: Dumplin' by Julie Murphy

Dumplin' by Julie MurphyDumplin' by Julie Murphy (review copy) - 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, 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.
From Goodreads.

I've heard a number of people raving about Dumplin' by Julie Murphy since last year. Cait of Paper Fury's review stood out for me. If Cait liked this book, I knew I would. And I was so super excited when I heard it was being published here in the UK! Dumplin' is amazing!

Willowdean is a fat girl. She knows it, and she owns it. That is until Bo, the guy she works with at a fast food joint, kisses her. Will really likes Bo, and kissing him is incredible... but she can't help feeling anxious about what he thinks when his hands are on her hips or her back fat. Their summer fling is electric, but causes Will to think negatively about herself. As the summer draws to a close, Will discovers Bo has been hiding things from her, and that along with her negative body image and being his secret lead her to end things. She's hurt by him keeping things from her, and just doesn't see how they could work, how he could really want her.
On top of this, she's still grieving for her aunt Lucy, who died the previous year. Lucy was like a second mum to Will, and also a larger lady. When Will finds an old, unused registration form for the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant, Will realises, for as wonderful as she was, that Lucy's weight stopped her from doing the things she wanted. In honour of her aunt, and in order to help her get her body confidence back, Will signs up for the pageant, to show that big can also be beautiful. The pressure mounts when she realises exactly what she's let herself in for, but knows she can't back out because Millie, Amanda and Hannah, three other girls who also get bullied for how they look, have followed her lead and registered. Together, these girls are going to show Clover City you don't have to be slim, blonde and beautiful to also be worthy.

Oh my god, I cannot even begin to express how much I love this book! Dumplin' is not just a book that deals with body image, but also society's idealistic view of what a woman should look like. It's incredibly feminist, and I just loved every second of it!

Willowdean starts off by calling herself fat. It's not  a way of putting herself down, it's what she is. "Fat" is a descriptor, not an insult. She's a larger lady, and she owns it. She's happy with her body, and doesn't really care what anybody thinks. Except, well, maybe her thighs, which she isn't the biggest fan of, and is sure no-one else wants to see, so will rush from a swimming pool to her towel to cover herself up. Otherwise, she's completely a-ok with her body. Until Bo makes it clear that he fancies her. He's such a great guy, mostly. But Will cannot help the direction her thoughts go in when his hands are on her body. Instead of just falling into her kisses with Bo, she's super conscious of where his hands are; she freezes, she sucks her stomach in, and is constantly worrying about what he might think. So when things go south for them, she really starts to question her feelings about her body.

Her mother doesn't help. Former winner of the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet, she now runs the pageant. She has strong opinions on what a lady should look like and how a lady should behave. Every year for the pageant, she will slip into the dress she wore when she won the crown - so every year leading up to it, she goes on some crazy fad diet. And if she's on this diet, so is Will, because she's not doing anything else. And she's sure Will would be much happier if she would only lose some weight. Throughout the book, she always has something to say about how Will looks, especially when she registers for the pageant. She gets a dress for Will, and adjusts it to fit her, but when it's a little too snug for liking, she says she only adjusted it so much because she thought Will would take the pageant seriously, and lose some weight. The whole way through the book you get the distinct feeling that her mum doesn't think Will is beautiful, and is in actual fact ashamed of her size. And it's so upsetting to read.

But despite some of her negative thoughts, Will is not going to change. Not for a boy, not for her mum, and not for some beauty pageant. There isn't anything in the rules that says you have to look a certain way, and she's entering as is. Inspired by her strength and bravery, Millie, a girl at Will's school who is also fat, signs up for the pageant. She has always, always wanted to take part in the pageant, but never felt like she could. But if Will can do it, so can she. And she's convinced her best friend Amanda, who has one leg shorter than the other and has to wear corrective shoes, and Hannah, a surly girl because of all the crap she gets for having big, crooked teeth, to sign up with her. These girls are brilliant. Millie is the sweetest, nicest girl you will ever come across. She's so cheerful and positive, and she takes the pageant seriously; she sets up planning meetings for the four girls to get together and work out what they're going to do to get through the pageant, watching over video from old pageants and taking notes. Amanda is hilarious. When people are bullied, from my experience, they tend to be kind of quiet and shy, even a little mousy (mostly talking about myself here), but, although Amanda doesn't draw attention to herself, she has this dry wit, and comes out with the most hilarious things. She always refers to Bo as "peachbutt", which made me grin every time! Hannah responds to her bullying, through anger. She's not the nicest of people, and she says mean things at times, but it's her armour against and the result of people comparing her to a horse. Together, these girls make an unlikely quartet, and although at first Will hangs out with them through a feeling of obligation, she grows to like these girls, and I think they're amazing. I love that they're standing together and saying, "We may not be traditionally beautiful, but we're just as deserving of being here and being seen."

As well as Bo, Lucy, the pageant, and the girls to contend with, Will is having to deal with changes in her friendship with her best mate Ellen. As they get older, their lives are going in different directions; El is overtaking Will when it comes to boys, and she's becoming interested in things Will couldn't care less about. When things start happening with Bo, Will keeps them to herself, wanting to have something that's just hers, but also not wanted to feel like an innocent when she gets excited about kissing Bo, when El is in a sexual relationship. Will struggles more and more with their friendship as the story goes on, and things come to ahead when she realises El has also registered for the pageant. Will signs up to make a point, but El could probably win, and, she believes, will overshadow everything she's trying to do. It's really interesting to see a book deal with a friendship that has lasted for years, but that is starting to change, and having to deal with what that change means for them. I think it's something everyone who has had a long, important friendship in their teens can relate to. It was really beautifully done!

Dumplin' isn't a romance, or a friendship novel, or a story of a beauty pageant, or a book about self-esteem, body image, and loving who you are - it's all of these things in equal measure. It's so wonderful, and so uplifting. Despite Will being fat and I being thin, the things she talks about had me thinking about how I view myself, and I finished this book with even more love for my body than I did before. Dumplin' is an incredibly empowering novel, and one that will stick with me for a very long time.

Thank you to Harper 360 for the review copy.

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Published: 28th January 2016
Publisher: Balzer & Bray
Julie Murphy's Website


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