January 19, 2017
Murphy, Julie. Dumplin’. 2015. New York, New York. , HarperCollins.
Willowdean Dickson is a plus size girl and her mother is a former beauty queen. Her mother’s nickname for her is Dumplin’, which Willowdean hates. Her aunt has just passed away, and she’s still grieving. Aunt Lucy was the only person in her family she was close to. Without Lucy, she and her mother argue more than ever. Willowdean likes school well enough, but dislikes that she and others are constantly body shamed by the school bully Patrick. She decides to enter the local beauty pageant. Her mother previously won the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant, and is still involved with the planning and judging. If Willowdean is successful she feels that it will put her detractors to shame. She never thought her actions would inspire others to enter the pageant for similar reasons. Now they all have to face their insecurities and defeat their inner critics together.
Murphy brings Willowdean to life, and she’s a complex and interesting character. She grows as the novel progresses, and has insecure teenage reactions to Bo’s interest in her. Her relationship with her best friend Ellen rings true, and their argument and time of separation allows Will a chance for more self-reflection. The reader gets to know her more, and see her inner turmoil. Will’s relationship with Mitch is a contrast to her relationship with Bo. By entering the pageant Will is able to gain a better understanding of her mother, and eventually repair her friendship with Ellen while making new friends with the other girls. Hannah challenges her more than any other character, while Millie is sweet and supportive.
Body image issues, acceptance, bullying, and friendship permeate the novel. Murphy handles these issues with care and conscience. This is not the stereotypical story where the plump girl has to lose weight to gain her self- esteem. Will feels pressured by her mother to lose weight, and her mother worries she will follow in Aunt Lucy’s footsteps, who lost her life to heart disease due to obesity. We never meet Aunt Lucy in the novel, but she seemed to be a gentle soul who loved life and Will in particular. They bonded over their love of Dolly Parton. The story of Lucy’s failed trip to Dollywood is perhaps the most painful part of the novel.
While the jacket of the book seems to focus on the pageant arc of the story, there’s relatively little of it in the book. It’s more about the journey to the pageant, than what happens there. The novel doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on pageant silliness or issues many people might have with them. It’s about Willowdean, her journey to self-acceptance, and how she and her mother heal their strained relationship. This is a standalone novel, but many side characters are well developed. One might wish that we could get a Millie, Hannah, and Ellen book too. Will’s voice is authentic, and rings true to the novel’s satisfying end.
“Murphy…successfully makes every piece of the story…count, weaving them together to create a harmonious, humorous, and thought-provoking whole.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Will’s singular voice compels readers to think about all that goes into building-and destroying-self-esteem…Splendid” (Booklist (starred review))
Book Clubs or discussion groups could talk about the stigma of the word “fat”, and particularly how it relates to girls and women. Why do people still feel the need to shame other people for being overweight? What do you think of Willowdean? Is she a strong character? Relationships between mothers and daughters are quite complex. Why does Willowdean idolize her Aunt Lucy, but dislike her mother? Do you feel they understand each other better at the end of the novel? The relationship between Ellen and Willowdean becomes strained in the story. Do you think this gave Willowdean a chance for more self-reflection to be isolated from her best friend? How does Murphy use the supporting characters to move Willowdean along in the story? What do you think of the relationships between Willowdean and Bo, and Willowdean and Mitch?
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Reviewed by Beth K.