(Thank you to HarperTeen for giving me a galley of this novel in exchange for an honest review. This did not in any way affect my review.)
Dumplin’ (September 15), Julie Murphy’s follow-up to her debut novel, Side Effects May Vary (2014), offers a painful-yet-vividly visceral look at teenage obesity through the eyes of sixteen-year-old Willowdean “Will” Dickson, who lives in the shadow of her mom, a minor celebrity in the contemporary beauty-pageant arena of Clover City, Texas. Although Will tells her story in reflective narration, often providing glimpses of poignant bravery and astute observations on challenges overweight women face, she cannot overcome quite a few flaws in Murphy’s character development, reliance on stereotypes, and a turgid plot structure. A flat tone and predictable plot that relies on YA tropes are not helped by an unsympathetic, unremarkable, and ultimately unlikable heroine in what should have been a novel that celebrates individuality and originality.
Dumplin’ is narrated by Will, nicknamed “Dumplin’” by her mother, over the course of a few months that present challenges and changes in her life. Will works at a fast food restaurant, her after school and summer job, and is grieving for her beloved Aunt Lucy, who died the previous December of a heart attack. Will clings to Lucy’s belongings even though her mother wishes to throw them out and move on with her life after her sister’s death. Will is in denial about her aunt’s passing and still looks to her as a role model of how to bravely face obesity, a comfort in Lucy’s own skin that ultimately leads to her death but makes a strong impression on overweight and insecure Willowdean. Struggling to find confidence and assurance about her size, Will’s insecurities are one of the main conflicts of the novel. Also working at the restaurant is Bo, a peer Willow finds attractive and has a summer fling with before she ends it thinking he would be ashamed to be with a larger woman. At the same time, Will feels a growing distance between her and her best friend Ellen, whose boyfriend and new friendships leave a gap in their relationship. In the fall Will finally finds the courage to enter the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet beauty show that her mother directs each year. Joined by a group of girls as unlike the typical Miss Teen Blue Bonnet as possible, Will navigates relationships with two of her male peers (Bo and Mitch), irreparable damage to her friendship with Ellen, and a need to prove herself to her mother, who has always been slightly if not outwardly ashamed by her plus size daughter.
From the beginning, Murphy relies on YA stereotypes. Bo is the caricature of the Mysterious Loner Dude, a distinction that relies more on predictability than rounded character development. Bo, Mitch, and Willowdean make up the three points of a classic YA love triangle with Will using Mitch to make Bo jealous. Indecisiveness and subtle power plays form the basis of Will’s wishy-washy and insufferably juvenile approach to her love life. This is not unfamiliar territory for Murphy; in Side Effects May Vary the central conflict was whether or not the female protagonist, Alice, was leading her best friend, Harvey, on romantically during and after a diagnosis of cancer. With Will’s vacillation and manipulation making up a good chunk of her narration, Will’s unbearably vacant and shallow attitude distinguishes Dumplin’ not as an exception to a tired and worn convention in YA romance but rather as yet another (forgettable) entry in the YA love triangle canon. Worse still, this romantic obstacle is never resolved.
Unfortunately, Will herself shows no depth of character. What are her passions? Her interests? Her quirks? Outside of her part-time job, no distinguishing features can be found. This leads to a problem that Murphy should have avoided at all costs: Will truly does not exist outside of her insecurities about her body. Instead of being a well rounded character she slips into being the same boring, disengaged, plain-vanilla protagonist that plagues so much of contemporary YA.
Also at issue is the novel’s puzzling structure. The Miss Teen Blue Bonnet competition is billed as the heart of the novel, and Willowdean’s entry into the competition and the ensuing pageant activities are made to seem like the main plot of the novel. In fact, Will does not decide to enter the competition until page 141 of 370. Yet for the most part, Will considers the pageant to be an afterthought. This is because she spends so much time mooning over Bo and Mitch. The actual day of the pageant only comprises Dumplin’s final 24 pages. Marketing Dumplin’ as a novel about a beauty pageant is as misleading as the competition is thinly sketched. Furthermore, instead of there being one major climactic scene where Willowdean confronts her mother about her lack of support for her because of her size, perhaps the true central conflict of the novel, Murphy spreads mini episodes where Will stands up to her mom throughout the novel. The resulting pro-body-size rhetoric becomes redundant and repetitive, and no momentum can be found in a plot dragged down with teen angst and ennui.
With a tagline like “Go big or go home” stamped on the cover, Dumplin’ sends the reader home empty. An unexceptional, disappointing, and regrettable read.