Book: Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

Reviewer: Bethany

Age/Genre: YA

Preferred Reading Environment: The swimming pool on a hot summer day.

Reading Accoutrements: A popsicle or a slushie! Wear something comfortable, that makes you feel like you.

Content Notes: There is a lot of fat-shaming, self-loathing, and general misunderstanding of how it feels to be considered “other” by society in some way in this book.

I first read Dumplin’ in 2015 when it was released because it received a lot of pre-publication hype and I was in need of some inspiration after leaving graduate school. Netflix recently turned this YA novel into a movie and, since people everywhere have New Year’s resolutions on their mind and body image is sure to come up, I decided that now would be a good time for a review.

Willowdean Dickson is the 15-year-old daughter of a former Miss Clover City Teen Bluebonnet Beauty Pageant winner, Rosie Dickson, who now runs the pageant committee. She lives in the small town of Clover City, Texas, a place obsessed with sports and pageants and divided by rich and poor, private school and public school. Willowdean – known to her friends as “Will” and to her mother as “Dumplin’” – is overweight but has always felt at home in her own skin, thanks in part to her Aunt Lucy (recently deceased) who weighed in at almost 500 pounds at the time of her death and who encouraged Will to participate in life without letting other people’s opinions matter. Will and her best friend, Ellen, have been skating through their sophomore year of public high school together, bonding over their complex families and their love of Dolly Parton.

When Willowdean takes a job at Harpy’s – a fast food restaurant – and Ellen takes a job at Sweet 16 – a clothing store in the mall, the two begin to drift apart. Ellen makes new friends and starts having sex with her boyfriend, while Will pines for Private School Bo (the boy who flips burgers behind the counter at Harpy’s) and secretly hates Ellen’s workplace because it doesn’t carry her size and Ellen’s work-friends who think she is a pity-case. Over the summer as the two best friends drift apart, Will and Private School Bo start making out behind Harpy’s after work. Suddenly, Willowdean is self-conscious of her body with no one to talk to.

Meanwhile, Will’s mother has begun cleaning out her aunt’s room to make space for her pageant crafts and Will starts hoarding her aunt’s belongings so they won’t be thrown out or donated. One day, while sorting through some of her aunt’s belongings, Will finds an application for the Miss Clover City pageant for 1994 – the year her Aunt Lucy would have been eligible to participate in the pageant. Willowdean resolves to participate in the belief that it will help her get her mojo back. But when other misfits in the town join her crusade to make the pageant more inclusive, Will feels the pressure to protect her new cohorts and she struggles even more to find the confidence she’s searching for.

That is probably the longest plot synopsis of all time, but I tried to include as many of the threads as I could. This is a really nuanced book, with a realistic main character in her teens, struggling through high school, hormones, and small town life. That being said, I do think that the angst in some parts of this book is a little excessive. I made the mistake of rereading this while on my period (which has been making me very emotional lately), so it might be my sensitivity to emotion in general saying this, but there was. A lot. Of. Angst. Yes, teenagers are dramatic. But some YA novels *cough cough* Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince *cough cough* overplay the hormone-driven need for drama a bit too much. If that was really how all teenagers felt, emo kids would be the norm and My Chemical Romance would be as big as Justin Timberlake.

A lot of the reviews I read about this book were disappointed that Willowdean Dickson wasn’t a confident, overweight, teenage girl telling everyone to get over it and move along, she was going to win this pageant to prove them wrong. In fact, several were really angry that Will was…well, a typical teenage girl with self-esteem issues. But the thing is, even as adults our confidence level isn’t a stagnant thing. You don’t hit adulthood and suddenly your confidence level is permanently at 75 percent.  Confidence waiver. It ebbs and flows, and a lot of that has to do with external influences. Teenagers have a lot less control over their external influences, too. They have limited job options and are exposed to a wide range of people and culture in classes at school, in church, and in their homes by the adults around them. All of that influences their confidence. To ignore that would be a little too unrealistic and harmful.

The other problem many reviewers had was the super-jock that Willowdean ends up in a love triangle with. This one, I totally understand. While Will attempts to convince everyone that looks don’t matter to her, she crushes on this guy at work who is athletic and handsome and even admits that he was a total douche to his last girlfriend. I mean, go him for being self-aware, but I don’t know if that indicates a guy who is ready for a relationship…Anyway, Willowdean has other dating prospects – a huge linebacker on the school’s football team who seems really sweet and is making an honest effort to be there for her as a friend and maybe more – but she isn’t feeling it. “The heart wants what it wants” is Will’s excuse but the message this sends in the book is a little harder for me to reconcile. Part of me thinks that Willowdean should’ve ended up with the nice guy because he deserves good things. Part of me thinks that Willowdean and Bo can be happy together and who cares if he happens to be a handsome jock?

Anyway, Willowdean’s character is struggling with a lot. Her aunt’s sudden death has taken a toll on her and now she and her mother are navigating their way around the giant hole she left behind. Rosie Dickson tends to actively ignore Will’s body, except when she starts the family on a fad diet or makes them watch a reality show about obesity. Aunt Lucy was the one who took Will clothes shopping and spoke to her about self-confidence. My favorite part of this book is a quote from Aunt Lucy. Will remembers a time when she didn’t want to go to her dance class because she knew she wouldn’t fit in and people would stare at her, and Aunt Lucy told her:

I’ve wasted a lot of time in my life. I’ve thought too much about what people will say or what they’re gonna think. And sometimes it’s over silly things like going to the grocery store or going to the post office. But there have been times when I really stopped myself from doing something special. All because I was scared someone might look at me and decide I wasn’t good enough. But you don’t have to bother with that nonsense. I wasted all that time so you don’t have to. If you go in there and you decide that this isn’t for you, then you never have to go back. But you owe yourself the chance, you hear me?

I was inspired.

But now Willowdean doesn’t have the one support she relies on when her confidence falters. While her mother loves her and wants her to be healthy, Will just wants her mother to be accepting of her in whatever skin she wears. I’ve said a lot of stuff about Willowdean in this review (and rightfully so, it’s her book) but I haven’t mentioned that I actually really like her. Yes, she’s got some angst and she makes mistakes – what person doesn’t? But she is honest, her sense of humor is awesome, and I relate to her struggle for confidence in herself.

The thing I find most realistic about Will is that the bullies aren’t the ones who bother her. She ignores the boy at school who calls her Dumplin’ because it’s a name for a dough-ball and not as a term of endearment (except for one time when she kicks him in the balls, but he deserved that). She doesn’t really care about the people yelling “pageant piggies” at her and the other unorthodox contestants. What makes her the most self-conscious are moments with the people she cares about: her mother saying that she should’ve tried to lose a little weight for the pageant, Private School Bo touching her back fat or keeping their relationship a secret, and the insinuation that Ellen stays her friend out of pity. Bullies, like Eleanor Roosevelt said, don’t have power unless you give it to them. The people Will trusts are the ones who have the power to hurt her, which is an important message to remember in the real world – particularly with the people we love.

Which is probably why I was a little disappointed by the other characters in the book. Will’s character is very nuanced with deep dimension, but the supporting cast tends to be flat. Their characterization leaves a lot to be desired. This can probably be explained away by the fact that the whole book is narrated by Willowdean, who is a self-absorbed teenager and only sees these people as who she needs them to be. It still grates on my nerves.

The next book in the series, Puddin’, follows Millie’s journey. I’m hoping her character is fleshed out a bit more in that one, but I’m honestly too nervous to read it right now. Maybe sometime this year…When hormones aren’t affecting my reading preferences…

In the meantime, Netflix has released a movie version of Dumplin’ and it has its own merits. A lot of little things about the book are changed for the movie; for example, Mitch doesn’t exist (which I don’t mind at all) and one of the girls who joins the pageant with Willowdean is also left out of the plot (which saddens me). The changes in the characters and various plot points serve a purpose. Obviously, a movie has a lot less time to convey what a book can and narration in a movie often pulls the viewer out of the story instead of including them, so you can lose a lot of background and emotions. Those things have to be conveyed in a different way in movie form, which pretty much means that Willowdean Dickson does not even appear to be confident in her own skin in the movie, whereas everyone believed she was comfortable being her size in the book even when she wasn’t. That’s probably the only change I felt that made the movie worse. In the movie, Rosie Dickson is more redeemable because she’s portrayed more as a hardworking mom instead of a lady who constantly makes comments about Will’s weight. And the movie handles Will’s final talent for the pageant A LOT better. I recommend the movie as long as you don’t compare it to the book too hard – – the messages are different, I think, than the ones in the book.

If you’re in need of a lighthearted and inspiring YA novel, Dumplin’ is a good pick. It’ll take you down a road of angst and self-discovery and you’ll come out feeling like a winner, even though winning wasn’t actually the point of this story at all.

I have to know, have you read Puddin’ or seen the movie version of Dumplin’? Would you recommend either? Put your thoughts in the comments!

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