On my trip to Big Bend, I read a mediocre young-adult novel featuring an overweight heroine, and I was thoroughly unimpressed even as I lament the lack of diversity in heroines. Dumplin’ makes headway where Future Perfect failed.
Dumplin’ is set in small-town Texas where beauty pageants and their queens reign supreme. In fact, our heroine Willowdean and the titular Dumplin’ is overweight though her mother is herself a former teen beauty queen. Will is grieving the death of her aunt, afraid of the growing distance between herself and her best friend Ellen, navigating unexpected first kisses, and butting heads with her mother. She is grappling with those issues as she also struggles to feel comfortable in her own skin.
I wasn’t sure whether I would like this book; I’m not into beauty queens, Southern etiquette, or Dolly Parton. At its heart, though, this book’s main theme is about risk-taking. What risks are you too scared to take? Who or what is stopping you from the life you want to life and feel you deserve? The book encourages us, through its diverse cast of characters, to confront those fears head-on and to feel good about the pursuit of living life. That’s a message I can get behind, iced-tea recipes, big hair, and formal wear notwithstanding.
I did very much enjoy the book. I found it silly and light-hearted even as it also deals with big-ticket issues like death and self-esteem. I laughed aloud several times and found other moments insightful. Willowdean is by no means an unflawed character, and she frequently makes decisions or reacts in ways I dislike. Additionally, despite this book’s focus on body-positive issues, I was unprepared for the amount of self-loathing she does have even as other characters describe her as confident. Still, she’s a compelling character, and I enjoyed how she develops through the book as a result of the choices that she makes.
Willowdean’s self-destruction (and make no mistake, she self-destructs and undermines herself through vast portions of the book) is too strongly tied to the absence of her best friend. In some ways, her inability to recognize herself without Ellen’s guidance reflects Callie’s cruel comments about her overdependence on Ellen in the first place. Willowdean needs to know who she is without someone telling her who she is. Few of us, though, are so self-assured as teenagers (let alone adults!) to manage such a task without some guidance from those who know us best.
In particular, I would recommend the audiobook. The southern touches may seem charming in the book, but Eileen Steven’s voicing of the characters adds layers of delight to the book. Will’s mother becomes every bit the Southern lady with the narrator’s voice talents, and the other twangy touches throughout the audiobook are similarly delightful.
I enjoyed this book, and I’m so glad Alex recommended it to me. I was skeptical when she did, but she hasn’t led me wrong yet—especially where it comes to young-adult fiction!