Book review: Dumplin’, Julie Murphy

First, a disclosure: I am being a terrible tease with this review, because Dumplin’ isn’t actually out until September. However, you should pre-order from your local independent bookstore now, because by the time it arrives, it will be a pleasant surprise, so it will be like a present for yourself! (Not that I do this or anything — okay, fine, I freely admit that having a terrible memory really helps with this ploy, ensuring that I will be genuinely surprised when a book shows up.)

Willowdean Dickson lives deep in the heart of Texas, adores Dolly Parton, and has a pageant-obsessed mother who once won the town’s annual pageant and has become a key organizer. Oh, and she’s also fat. Dumpin’ is a story of teen love, conflicted friendships, pageant subversion, and coming to know yourself, and it’s also a fantastic story set against the larger than life background of Texas itself, which becomes its own character in the narrative. It’s a pretty great followup to Side Effects May Vary, Murphy’s debut.

Here’s what I love about Willowdean: She identifies herself as fat. She straight up points out that she’s aware she’s fat, and for the most part, she has no problem with it. She echoes the great ‘a bikini body is a body with a bikini on it’ adage, she eats what she wants, she does what she wants, and she clearly doesn’t really care if other people have a problem with her. That’s even though she lives in a household with a mother who’s obsessed with fitting into her pageant dress from decades ago, and even though her mother periodically leans on her to start ridiculous fad diets.

What I also like is that she’s not a perfect, idealised model of fat acceptance. Even those of us who feel pretty secure in our fat bodies have bad days and bad moments, and pretending otherwise isn’t really fair to ourselves or other people. If we don’t acknowledge self-doubt, social pressure, and stress, we kind of project this invincible image that makes other people feel inadequate — especially if they’re taking baby steps into fat acceptance. It can feel pointless to even try when you’re surrounded by people who appear to serenely own their bodies all the time.

While Willowdean doesn’t have a problem with being fat and doesn’t want to lose weight, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t experience anxiety when a boy expresses interest in her and she’s worried about what will happen when he touches her body and discovers her folds and back fat and all the rest. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t feel exposed when her best friend leaves her stranded at the pool in favour of talking to a slim, pretty girl who’s obviously pageant material. And it doesn’t mean she’s not judgmental, either, feeling nervous about being compared to fat girls who don’t look nicely put together and seem to almost invite ridicule in her eyes. I like that we see these sharp edges to her, particularly with respect to her wavering self-esteem, because that rings true to my own experience.

Overall, Willowdean might love her body and who she is. That doesn’t mean she’s secure in herself every single second, especially when she’s in the spotlight, and it doesn’t mean she’s not sometimes harsh on other girls, not wanting to be seen with the fat girls who are larger than her or who struggle to pull outfits together. It’s an authentic depiction of a real experience, acknowledging that high school is a frightening and terrible place that would eat away at anyone’s self-esteem, especially if you stand out. Having a character with perfect confidence would be highly suspicious, and it would be odd if Willowdean magically accepted everyone, too.

Things get complicated in Dumplin’ when a boy expresses an interest in her and she struggles to reconcile that with her self-image, and when she decides to join the pageant that’s been her mother’s life all these years. After seeing her mother urge her best friend to compete and notably remain silent on the subject around her, Willowdean feels like she has to be defiant and make a point, and she enters with some of the school’s other outsiders, subverting the pageant’s notions of beauty and who should be allowed to compete.

If this was a nice fairytale book, she’d somehow win the crown and everyone would magically rethink their view on fat. That’s not what happens in Dumplin’, though, which offers a more honest look at pageants, conventional beauty, and how fat women and girls are judged. The book is about the journey, not some kind of grand revelatory moment where everyone feels guilty for doubting Willowdean and her friends and mocking their bodies. It’s about how her relationship to her body changes, and how she finds friendship and connections in the people around her, including those she might have written off before.

It’s also just a fantastically descriptive, colourful book. I found myself laughing at some points and at others, the deep love for the Texan landscape really came through and I felt totally connected with the environments around the characters. Murphy has a fantastic writing voice and it was great to see her put it to use in this funny, sweet love story with a definite fatty edge. Fat teens need a fatty anthem and a role model in a landscape that seems perennially occupied by heroines that look nothing like them. I love that Dumplin’ isn’t about a weight loss journey or coming to hate your fat, but about fat pride and defiance. More people could use that in their lives, and I’m excited to see the response in September.