Overweight. Disabled. Buck-toothed. Lesbian.
These are the characters rarely bestowed a voice, let alone the loudest in a story about beauty, hope, and love, but in young adult novel, Dumplin’, Julie Murphy passes around the microphone. Centre-stage is normally self-assured 16 year old, Dolly Parton-loving Willowdean, with hips she knows would have once been worth: “Many cows.”
Willowdean’s life is in flux: her best friend, Ellen, a walking beauty queen without the pageant, is about to strut down the sexual garden path. Willowdean’s guttural reaction to this tells us: Willowdean presumes she won’t get a garden path.
Or will she?
Bo, the lollipop-sucking addict at work—whose clothes strain against his biceps just as much as Willowdean’s do against her hips—shows increasing interest in Willowdean. (Shame, thy name is a teenage girl who doesn’t tell her best friend she’s growing close to her crush, because she assumes his feelings can’t be real.)
Willowdean’s new self-doubt is further rattled by her mum, who—as one of the best-known winners and organisers of the town’s Bluebell Beauty Pageant—grows vigilant of Willowdean’s weight, food choices, and clothing.
Pageant fever escalates as Willowdean’s self-worth hits a crushing low. When someone makes the mistake of bullying Willowdean for her weight and suggests she could never enter the comp, Willowdean flips, marches into pageant HQ, and does just that. Even better, she enlists other unlikely hopefuls.
But as she prepares to proclaim her self-worth to the town on stage, can she do the same with herself—and Bo?
Willowdean is the ultimate imperfect heroine, and her pageant friends are sparkling fun. Bo—who says the name “Willowdean” like it might be a love word—is a mystery who unfolds well across the page.
A light-hearted ride, Dumplin’ never manages to deliver an emotional rollercoaster. In particular, the climax feels a little disjointed, like we’ve just hopped tracks.
Dumplin’ asks: ‘Am I enough to be loved?’ Willowdean’s ongoing tussle with her sense of self reminds us: we must always behave as if we are.