Title: Dumplin’ (2015)
Author: Julie Murphy
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Extent: 375 pages
Release Date: September 15, 2015
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.
So I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since I found out what it was about. Reviews in the community have generally been mixed, but I’m always up for books with ‘unconventional’ protagonists and really love seeing them in action, so I picked it up in the end. Overall, though, the experience was largely underwhelming.
The first issue was that none of the characters really enticed me. I found Willowdean, the main character, to be judgmental, immature, and generally entitled, and I didn’t feel like she developed all that much even until the end. I also didn’t really like the way she treated other people around her, starting from her best friend Ellen, her mum, Mitch, the other girls. Her motivations were most of the time unclear, making her decisions largely confusing and perhaps out of nowhere.
I also didn’t particularly care for Bo, the main love interest, and didn’t understand why Willowdean was so transfixed with him, because to me, he didn’t seem to have a real personality beyond being mysterious and also a horrible communicator. Occasionally we were given glimpses of some depth, but that wasn’t really explored, leaving his character flat.
My second big problem with Dumplin’ is the pacing—it took way too long for the plot to actually pick up. I went into the book expecting the pageant to be the main theme, or at least a deeper exploration of Willowdean’s body acceptance and self-esteem issues, but most of the book was instead centred around her romance with Bo. Given that my general impression of Bo is, well, Unimpressed with a capital U, this made me want to put down the book and give up on it several times. It was unfortunately rather dull.
I realise that this book brings forward a lot of very relatable issues to anyone who’s ever struggled with body image. Willowdean struggles with self-esteem, with accepting herself as she is, with feeling confident even when she’s competing with those are more conventionally beautiful. These are all some very real things some of us struggle with potentially on a daily basis, and I applaud Murphy’s attempt to approach these. I worry, however, that this will send the wrong message.
Possible spoilers and perhaps controversial personal views from here.
I was hesitant to post this section because I feel like I might offend some people, especially considering the Twitter drama on body-shaming and obesity-glorifying happening several weeks back, but I think it’s important to clarify that obesity is by and large unhealthy, especially in extreme cases.
Of course, this does NOT give anyone the right to fat-shame (or skinny-shame, or shame anyone for whatever body they have), but I was rather uncomfortable with how Willowdean seemed in denial that her aunt Lucy—who recently died of a heart attack at 36 and was 500 pounds—was indeed living an extremely unhealthy life. It could of course be that we tend to see the dead from rose-tinted glasses but this was never clarified.
In Dumplin’, Willowdean also struggles with her mum’s criticisms, both explicit and implicit. In all honesty, I do think that her mum has valid concerns—Lucy just passed away from a heart attack which Murphy implied was caused by her unhealthiness and obesity, and Willowdean seemed to idolise her aunt. Is it wrong for Mum to be worried about her daughter’s health? Her way of expressing this might not be good, but I say no—that’s what mums are supposed to do.
On the other hand, I’m also not saying it’s wrong for Willowdean to love her body. Her weight was never mentioned explicitly (the author explained why here), but regardless of what the number on the scale is, it’s great that she accepts herself as it is. I’m just asking if she’s also physically healthy?
At the end of the day, body acceptance is incredibly important. Self-love is incredibly important. But health, also, is incredibly important. I’m just not entirely sure if that’s the message that we got from Dumplin’.
End spoilers and personal views.
With that out of the way, unfortunately, Dumplin’ wasn’t amazing. The plot took way too long to pick up, I didn’t find the main character likeable, and for a book that sells itself as being about body positivity, a mediocre romance seemed to take centre stage.