Author: Julie Murphy
Genre: Young Adult – Contemporary
Publication Information: Balzer + Bray, 2015
Rating: 4 Stars
Warnings: Sexual content, language
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.
(Summary from Goodreads)
I was super excited to read this one, and I wasn’t disappointed! I really enjoyed Murphy’s debut, SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY because of the realistically flawed characters, and that was what I enjoyed about DUMPLIN’, as well. I also loved how well the beauty pageant and Dolly Parton worked with this story, acting as huge parts in the story without overwhelming it.
Willowdean has always been confident in her appearance, but when she has a summer fling with Bo, she starts to realize that maybe she isn’t as confident as she pretends to be. This sets in motion her character arc, which is a journey to finding real confidence. However, there are also other layers in play. Willowdean and her mother are still grieving the death of her aunt, for example, and it’s extra hard for Willowdean because Lucy felt like more of a mother than her actual mother did. Additionally, Willowdean’s relationship with her mom is strained, since her mom is worried about Willowdean ending up like the morbidly obese Lucy – and maybe a little embarrassed about Willowdean’s appearance, too. And then there is Willowdean’s relationship with her best friend, which also becomes strained throughout the book as Willowdean fears they’re drifting apart. I felt like all of these different conflicts worked really well together, rather than feeling messy.
There were also a lot of quirks in the book that made it fun to read. For example, Dolly Parton is a recurring theme. Willowdean is a fan, both because of what Dolly represents to her (being your authentic self regardless of what everyone else thinks) and because Lucy is the one who got her into Dolly to begin with. I also loved the beauty pageant as a backdrop to everything, since it added just a little extra drama to everything. (I mean, there were LOTS of dramatic things going on, but the beauty pageant lightened the mood a little.)
I also loved how the setting came to life. Murphy did a great job making me feel like I was in Willowdean’s small Texas town, and the beauty pageant had a lot to do with that, I feel like. We really got a sense for how central to this town the pageant was, as something that it could take pride in. There were also lots of smaller references, like all of the mentions of iced tea, that I liked. It all put us in the scene without being too much.
Both of Julie Murphy’s books have been winners for me now. I can’t wait to read more from her!
TL;DR: Complex character development and clear setting made this one a winner.