Release Date: September 15, 2015
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
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.
Once in a while, you come across a book that you can really connect with. Not just slightly, but in a fundamental level. For me, Dumplin' was such a book. The moment I read the synopsis for Julie Murphy's second novel, I knew that I would have to read it. Though my expectations were high, I did not quite expect to be faced with a story that felt so real, so honest and so much like something that I could relate with.
I don't know where to start. I feel like have so much so say, but I also know that anything I come up won't do justice to this story. Dumplin' follows Willowdean and her life in a little West Texas town during the summer break between her Sophomore and Junior years as well as the fall of her junior year. Willowdean is a lot like other teenage girls her age – she loves spending time with her best friend, she works in a fast food restaurant during nights and she is crushing on a boy she thinks will never notice her. But in addition to all of that, Willowdean is fat. Yes, fat – not chubby, plus-sized, big boned or curvy. FAT. And she's okay with that. But when things start to happen with the boy she likes and the yearly teen beauty pageant gets closer, Willowdean begins to question everything she has thought about herself and her place within her group of friends and in a more extended manner, within the society.
Though I often find features from YA contemporary female main characters that I can connect with, whether is be nerdiness, anxiety or something else, I am not sure whether I have ever connected with a character as much as I connected with Willowdean. At several points, I felt like her thoughts were echoing mine so closely that I found it difficult to make the difference between Willowdean (the character) and Milka (the reader). Willowdean has always been fat and she learned to embrace it. She does not understand why her body should define her as a human being. Though she acknowledges the way people often look at her and her body, she knows that some people have it worse. When it is made pretty clear to her that people like her should not participate in the Teen Beauty Pageant, Willowdean decides that she wants to show everyone that beauty comes in many different forms. With a small gang of unconventional beauty queens, Willowdean embarks on a road of self-discovery and second chances.
I highlighted so many parts of this book with my Kindle, mostly focusing on the way Murphy writes about Willowdean's confidence and thoughts about her body. I love how Willowdean is not afraid to use the word 'fat' – she acknowledges that it is a thing people notice about her and she's okay with that. So by calling herself fat, she is not trying to look for pity. Rather, she is trying to help people get pass the uncomfortableness that the word 'fat' creates – being fat is Willowdean's reality, but it not all she is. She is funny, confident and loving, but she can also be selfish and judgemental, and it is exactly that what makes her so real. She makes mistakes and does not necessarily acknowledge her flaws right away, but she is willing to do some self-searching and ask for forgiveness when she realizes that she has made a mistake.
As a fat girl (yes, I am also okay with using the word fat), it is so refreshing to read about a character who is okay with how she is, but not in an overly confident, “I don't care about anything” way. Yes, Willowdean knows she is fat and she acknowledges that dropping so pounds probably would not instantly change her life. She is confident in her own skin, but she also occasionally feels like she is caged into a body that is too big for her. She questions her outlook and the way people react to her, but deep down knows that she is good enough, just the way she is. I feel like the fact that Willowdean questions herself and the way she looks makes her even more real because even those with a perfect body, according to the standards of society, occasionally feel fragile and like they are not good enough. Deep down, though all of these pageant girls look different, they all have the same worries, which can be linked to the way our society represents girls – nothing is good enough and there is always something that could be changed; your hair could be thicker, your boobs could be bigger or your personality could be bubblier.
Murphy's novel made me come back to so many questions I have thought about before. Why is the word 'fat' seen as a bad word whereas the words 'skinny' and 'thin' are used as a badge of honor? Is your happiness directly in connection to the number your bathroom scale? Is your beauty and worth as a human being defined by your body mass index? Why should people with bodies deemed desirable by the society fall in love with people with bodies that are “unhealthy”? Can a fat person really ever be confident or are they just trying to keep up an act to hide their misery? And finally, why is the word 'fat' often connected to girls and women, whereas boys and men with bigger bodies are often deemed as 'big' or in some cases 'athletic'?
There is no way I will be able to answer all of those questions. I don't think anyone can, mostly due to the fact that we all take a different stand on them. Unfortunately, words fat and unhealthy are often connected to each other – yes, some people who are fat are unhealthy, but is not all black and white. I am fat, but I also think I am healthy. Yes, maybe I could be a bit more athletic or once in a while skip those chips or sodas, but nevertheless, I am healthy. In addition, the word fat is often connected with the concept of laziness. There is this widely ranging idea that all people that do not fit within the normal standards of the BMI scale just sit on their sofas, eating greasy pizza and watching TV all day long while all the normally bodied people inhabit gyms and snack on kale chips. I think that the way Murphy writes Willowdean is so important and I wish that I would have read such a book when I was a bit younger and not as confident – Willowdean is hardworking and active in addition to being fat. She does not cry alone at home, eating obscene amounts of potato chips alone in her bed while watching TV. She goes out, has friends and lives her life. And she can do all of that despite the fact that she is fat.
Though I have always loved a good romance storyline, I think in the past few years I have started to like friendship storylines even more. And there's an awesome one found from Dumplin'. Willowdean and El have been friends for ages – they know everything about each other and in reality, they are more like sisters than friends. But when El's relationship with her boyfriend Tim gets more serious, Willowdean starts to feel like they start to drift apart. Then new friends, the pageant and other things get between them and they get isolated from each other. They see each other every day, but for some reason it just feels like they cannot connect anymore. It takes some self-searching from both parties to find a way to connect again if they even want to be friends again in the way the used to be.
The friendship between Willowdean and El feels so real. They love each other and rely on each other. Though the romance between Willowdean and Bo makes Willowdean question her decisions and the way a relationship between the two would impact her life, it is really the drift in the friendship with El that guides her decisions and makes her realize that she also needs to ask for forgiveness. At one point in the novel, Willowdean states that the only way for her to fix her life is to put all the little pieces it has been broken into together one by one and that the first piece for her is always El – not Bo, not her mother, not her image, but her best friend. And I think that is just absolutely beautiful.
The connection between Willowdean and her mother is fragmented, and throughout the book, they are both to blame for it. I loved the fact that Murphy does not turn the mother into a villain that makes her daughter's life extremely difficult. Rather, Murphy has written a mother who has for so long relied on her own image and the way she looks that she fails to understand that her daughter is not willing to live her life like that. When I was younger, I remember that my mom, who has always struggled with weight issues, used to tell me that life would probably be easier for me if my body went hand in hand with the standards defined as desirable by our society. At the time, I thought she was being heartless, tormenting me for no good reason. Now I get that she was just trying to take care of me. I know there are people are lot bigger out there in the world and I am fortunate to say that I have never really been extensively bullied as a result of the way my body looks. But I know how Willowdean feels when she says that she does not see a point going to a clothing store when she knows nothing will fit on her. But like Willowdean, I also know that my worth as a human being will not increase if my clothing size gets smaller. I am happy with myself as I am, and if I even do want to get smaller, it will only be because I want it for myself, not because someone told me to do it so I would be more desirable and deemed more of worth.
Bo is such a sweetheart – he begins as one of those brooding, mysterious characters who deep down is pretty much the perfect guy for Willowdean. He is a jock (well, more of an ex-jock after an injury) and the type of guy Willowdean has always though she has no right being in love with. She sees guys like Bo with the girls who do the pageant – long legged, thin and All-American. Even after Bo starts to show that he is interested in Willowdean, she hesitates, predicting the thoughts other people would have while seeing them holding hands. Why is a guy like that with a girl like her? Is he just pitying her? Does she deserve him? Though no one directly says these things to Willowdean, she can predict them. Yes, she is herself focusing on her body and their differences, but I think she has a right for it. What I love about Bo is the fact that he is able to see Willowdean as she is, not as a fat girl with a thin best friend. And despite Willowdean's hesitation, she can be herself with Bo. Not a girl with big thighs and stomach, but just a girl who really likes a boy that seems to like her back.
I am head over heels in love with Dumplin' and I have a feeling that every single person who reads it will fall for it too. Whether you identify yourself as fat, skinny, average, thin, plus size, big boned, chubby, petite, curvy etc., I think there is something in here you can find a connection with. Whether you are confident or not, I bet we can all relate with the struggle Willowdean and her friends go through. Dumplin' is such an important, honest novel with a fierce, likable yet flawed protagonist, that I cannot praise enough. After reading this, I felt like I should be best friends not only with Willowdean, but with Julie Murphy herself because a woman who is capable of writing such an honest novel with interesting, realistic characters and relationships deserves my uttermost respect. Julie Murphy, thank you for writing about a fat girl who is okay with being fat. Thank you for writing a character who realizes that her self-worth is not connected to her weight. Thank you for showing that fat girls can have fun too. Thank you, thank you, thank you!