In Clover City, Texas-a slightly more comedic Friday Night Lights-esque town-the Miss. Teen Bluebonnet Pageant reigns supreme. It’s every high school girl’s dream to have her name cast in the stars as the ruling royal of the year, complete with long held southern culture and a tradition of excellence. That is unless you’re Willowdean Dickson; good friend, resident fat girl, and daughter of the 1997 queen. In which case the competition is not a one day event worth avoiding, but a constant hum in her ear. A hum made even shriller by the recent death of her stand-in mom Aunt Lucy. As Wil’s trademark confidence is shaken by her feelings for attractive coworker Bo, she sets out to turn the tables on a self-imposed boundary and enter the pageant herself- proving once and for all “go big or go home”. This feat may be more than Wil anticipated though as she juggles her deteriorating friendship with best friend Ellen, an unexpected love triangle, her nonexistent relationship with her mother, and becomes the Oprah figure for fellow misfits joining the beauty revolution alongside her. Dumplin’ was white hot way back in September of 2015, being branded as THE body positive book of the year complete with a sassy, and spunky heroine worth taking note of. But do my opinions align with that of the majority? Or am I a bookish black sheep?
Just going to say it up front, I’m absolutely the pariah of reviewers when it comes to Dumplin’. It’s not that the story evoked strong, rant-worthy feelings of hate inside me, but when the hype level is at an almost infinitesimal level it’s going to be hard for that lofty bar to be met. There’s one main underlying reason for this that I’ll outline later, going along with several other easily remedial issues that I felt just brought the whole story line of Dumplin’ down a few decimeters. The first minor transgression purported by the plot? The slow-paced, dialogue fueled writing that Julie Murphy chose to tell the story with. Not only is it painfully dull to read, but it meant that the book’s main conflict- the pageant- was just beginning to be addressed with only forty pages remaining to the conclusion. That would be a huge hurdle for any book to jump in order for me to really like it, but coupled with the fact Dumplin’ is 375 pages long…you do the math. Trust me when I say lots of angst, drama, and hypocrisy ensued that ultimately meant nothing in Murphy achieving the end goal of her book message that was so highly laureled. This brings me to my next point; despite being a book promising diversity and acceptance of all people Willowdean makes more than a few snide, catty remarks on fellow characters appearances- though she’s all too quick to point the finger at people who judge her for her weight. I’m sure Murphy justified it as “character development” (not that Willowdean ever fleshes out beyond such petty actions…), but I felt lied to in the greatest sense. I get that no character can or should be perfect, but such shallowness was very unbecoming and led me to believe that Dumplin’ was only piggybacking on the momentum of the ‘We Need Diverse Books’ campaign. It certainly worked, sans writer integrity. While I’m on this general theme, let me also say how terrible and uninspired the relationships are between Wil and her friends/family. She basically destroys a life long friendship with bestie Ellen because the latter attempts to help in the pageant shakeup efforts, only to be rebuffed by Wil because she’s too thin/pretty (umm…okay?). Then the already rocky dynamic between Wil and her mom is further pushed to the breaking point by you know who (not that the mom is a pinnacle of affection or anything, but I needed more background to see the complexity of the situation). And then to really tip things over the edge is the love triangle to end all love triangles, but more on that later. In any other book these things may have warranted an eye roll and a slightly reduced rating. Not the case here though. And as you’ve likely guessed by now, I think we all know the issue. Let’s just get on discussing the elephant in the room…
Willowdean Dickson, is horrible. Mind numbingly dull, Regina George catty, and quite possibly one of the worst narrators ever. She single handly managed to ruin an entire book. Put that on a coffee mug. Because that lengthy list of shortcomings I mentioned above? Every single one could have been avoided without her presence. I happen to love slow paced books, but only when I relish in reading the protagonists thoughts, actions, and feelings. Only when I’m truly invested in their fate. I also appreciate a book that can bring a fresh perspective to YA, which she certainly could’ve. But it didn’t matter if Wil had the freshest fresh story I’ll ever read, because at the end of the day I needed to sympathize. Worst of all, she’s just not a good person. That’s evident by the terrible manner she treats all those around her. It’s clearly the Willowdean show all day and all night, and anyone who thinks differently needs to ship out. She plays the puppet master to others emotions, specifically not so potential love interest Mitch. By that I mean it’s painfully transparent that Wil has no intention of ever being in a relationship with him, yet she strings him along in an attempt to make resident hottie Bo jealous. Bo of course has no personality other than his abs and smoldering glares. Really his sole purpose is for Murphy to enlighten us all with the message that fat girls can attract hot guys. As if it’s possible by the laws of writing, they have even less of a spark when under the same roof. Really the only character whom Willowdean had any “chemistry” with was her dead aunt. Horrible to say, but I think this is likely because I didn’t see any interactions between the two in real time, thus I couldn’t interject my own opinions/observations into the narrative. A lot of readers were unhappy with the ending as it’s very open ended, but personally I felt the biggest flaw was the reconciliation of various relationships…as it proved nobody came out of their Willowdean-less month’s rational enough to disassociate with the emotional leach that she is.
In conclusion, if you don’t consider yourself a patient, even keeled, quick to forgive person, I would avoid this one. I plan on checking out Future Perfect in the comings months, which I’ve heard is a great alternative for those interested in Dumplin’ s plot line but disillusioned by her actual story. Fingers crossed for a great book I can report back on. Meanwhile, I’d loved to know what you guys thought of this one. Do you agree/disagree with my assessment of things? Let me know in the comments!
-Keep Calm and Read On