I watched the new Netlifx film Dumplin’ last month when I desperately needed a movie day, even though I had not yet read Julie Murphy’s novel and almost always prefer to read the book first. I was only going to watch the trailer, but then I couldn’t resist. After watching (and adoring) the film, I knew I needed to step the book up on my TBR, so I found a copy through my library and picked it up last week when I wanted something light to read.
About the book: Willowdean’s mom is a former pageant queen, but she’s never encouraged her only daughter to apply. At her size, people don’t exactly think of Willowdean as pageant material. But when she finds an unsubmitted application from her plus-size aunt’s teen years after Lucy’s death, Willowdean decides it’s time to make a statement- to her mom, to the mean kids at school, in honor of Lucy, and for herself. But how can she focus on the pageant when there’s a cute boy she might have a chance with, an epic battle of wills between Willowdean and her best friend, and her mom trying to turn Lucy’s bedroom into a craft room, devoid of beloved Dolly Parton memorabilia? And what about the other misfits who’ve signed up for the competition with Willowdean as their inspiration? One way or another, there’s going to be a big showdown.
“I think you gotta be who you want to be until you feel like you are whoever it is you’re trying to become. Sometimes half of doing something is pretending that you can.”
This is probably the only book I’ve read in years that I can say is completely cute without also being relegated to “guilty pleasure” territory for lack of substance. Dumplin’ the (YA contemporary) novel is just as wonderful as Dumplin’ the film, with a whole lot more drama packed in. It’s not YA fluff though- this is a book that makes a loud statement for any girl with body image doubts. I do appreciate that the movie is a bit more streamlined and less boy-focused, but I was relieved to find that there was so much more in the book that I didn’t even know to expect from the movie. The two formats make a great duo.
One main aspect that’s consistent across both mediums is Willowdean’s impression of herself. She is so set on refusing judgment from other people, and generally in front of any audience she stands up strong, knowing better than to let anyone else tell her what she’s worth. But she does judge herself. And she judges the people that she thinks are the most like her. In most books, I would’ve found this hypocrisy annoying, but it’s intentional here, and to great effect. Willowdean is a teen who learns throughout the course of the story that like most of us, she is her own harshest critic. She doesn’t want anything or anyone to hold her back on account of her size, which includes swallowing her own self-doubt.
“The way she says it. It’s not mean. Or rude. It’s true.”
On the flip side, Willowdean also needs to accept that she won’t be getting special treatment because of her mom’s place on the judges’ panel of the pageant. Refraining from holding herself back also means that she needs to put as much effort into her pageant events (and relationships) as the other girls do. If she wants to compete for any reason- whether it be in the name of revolution or in earnest for this year’s crown- she has to see the contenders as her equals, not her enemies. She has to play the game, just like everyone else.
“I don’t even want to win, but I think there’s this survival instinct inside all of us that clicks on when we see other people failing. It makes me feel gross and incredibly human.”
But this isn’t a book solely for plus-size readers. Dumplin’ is about friendship and grief, self-acceptance and acceptance of others no matter what their differences are. It’s about first love and family, coping with bullies, surviving high school. It’s about Dolly Parton and Southern traditions. It’s about being who you are, no matter what.
“You don’t always have to win a pageant to wear a crown.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ll definitely be reading Murphy’s recent sequel, Puddin’, though I’m always a bit less enthused about sequels that focus on different characters than the original. I think Murphy will pull it off, though. It’ll probably be one of those books that will pleasantly surprise me when I get around to picking it up. I’m also more interested in checking out Murphy’s other publications. And I’ll certainly be rewatching Dumplin’. Again.
- For more reading on what it’s like to be big in a world that values smallness, check out Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger. This book is more for adults, but I think younger readers could benefit as well as long as they know to expect some mature and difficult topics. Gay talks about using food to build her body like a fortress in the wake of rape, but she also talks about more everyday challenges like chairs with arms, stares at restaurants and gyms, and buying professional clothing in appropriate sizes.
Have you read or watched Dumplin’? Which format did you prefer?
The Literary Elephant