Cover of Dumplin, with an illustration of a large girl in a red dress

About the Book

Title: Dumplin’ (Dumplin’ #1)
Published: 2015
Series: Dumplin'
Swoonworthy Scale: 6

Cover Story: Highlight of My Life
BFF Charm: If You Go, I’ll Follow You
Talky Talk: Straight Talk
Bonus Factors: Body Image, Dolly Parton, Beauty Pageant, Texas
Relationship Status: I Will Always Love You

Cover Story: Highlight of My Life

Y’all, let me put it to you this way. If there was a beauty pageant for covers, this book would be crowned queen, no question. BOW DOWN.

The Deal:

Being “the fat girl” in high school is never easy, as Willowdean Dickson can attest. But when your mother is the head of Clover City’s Miss Teen Blue Bonnet, it’s even worse. At least Willowdean has always had her Aunt Lucy and her best friend Ellen in her corner, but now Lucy is gone, and Ellen seem to be drifting away. Then there’s the startling possibility that Bo, Willowdean’s hot coworker at the local fast food joint, is maybe kind of into her. His attention seems like a good thing, except it only makes Willowdean more self-conscious about her body.

Paralyzed by her sudden insecurity and desperate for a change, Willowdean follows the advice of the great Dolly Parton: “You’ll never do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough to try.” And by that I mean, she decides to enter the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant.

BFF Charm: If You Go, I’ll Follow You

Yay BFF Charm

Willowdean is a firecracker, that’s for sure. She’s an insanely complex, incredibly real girl who feels comfortable in her own skin… until she doesn’t. Like any teenager who’s ever walked the face of the earth, Will makes some impulsive decisions that left me with a bad case of headdesk, and it doesn’t help that she’s as stubborn as all get-out, but I never stopped rooting for her. She’s vulnerable but strong, a steely backbone paired with a big heart, and her dark sense of humor keeps her afloat even when the world is trying to sink her.

Bonus charm goes to Willowdean’s motley crew of Hannah, Amanda, and Millie, who make up the best squad of outcasts since Freaks & Geeks.

Swoonworthy Scale: 6

Bo, Willowdean’s crush, hovers on the outskirts of Mysterious Loner Dude territory with his strong jaw, lingering glances and abrupt advances. He’s sexy as hell, but his motives are murky, and it doesn’t help that Will spends the majority of the book trying to ignore him when HONESTLY JUST GET IT GIRL. I also had to deduct some points on behalf of Mitch, a total sweetheart who tries to woo Willowdean, who in turn treats him like crap. It’s frustrating, buuuuut it’s also very true to life, and lines like this reminded me that I can’t fault Will for being a teenager:

My feelings for him swing from hot to cold and back. I don’t want him here. I want him here. He’s crowding me. He’s not close enough.

Yep, that rings a bell! In other news, I’m so glad I’m not in high school anymore.

Talky Talk: Straight Talk

A palpable undercurrent of emotion runs through this book, and there are particular moments when it eddies around Willowdean in a flood of sadness and pain. But thanks to Julie Murphy’s gift for storytelling, the pages are also peppered with engaging eccentricity and winning characters. This novel is honest, but it’s not a downer, and the careful balance of light and dark yields a crowd-pleasing gem of a read.

Bonus Factor: Body Image

Willowdean and Ellen wearing bathing suits with positive body messages taped to them in a scene from Dumplin

Murphy’s exploration of body image is insightful and wonderfully frank, with passages like this:

The word fat makes people uncomfortable. But when you see me, the first thing you notice is my body. And my body is fat. It’s like how I notice some girls have big boobs or shiny hair or knobby knees. Those things are okay to say. But the word fat, the one that best describes me, makes lips frown and cheeks lose their color.

But that’s me. I’m fat. It’s not a cuss word. It’s not an insult. At least it’s not when I say it.

And this:

It’s nice to talk to someone who understands. Hannah may not get what it feels like to wonder if you’re going to fit into a chair with armrests or how anytime a floor creaks beneath your weight, everyone looks at you like you’re about to break the entire building. She might not get what it’s like to walk into a mall and know that 90 percent of the clothes won’t fit you or that even thinking about going to a buffet is a bad idea, because a fat person at a buffet is a joke waiting to happen. But she’s not patting me on the back, and telling me to do what makes me happy. And there’s some relief in that.

Willowdean’s struggle with her identity as a “fat girl” never felt like the stuff of an after-school special. It’s just a part of her character, and Murphy handles it with compelling nuance.

Bonus Factor: Dolly Parton

FF Dolly Parton Unlikely Angel

Willowdean’s Aunt Lucy was a huge fan of Dolly Parton (who isn’t), and she passed down that obsession to her niece. While Dolly herself doesn’t appear in this book, her spirit pervades Will’s journey, and since I love Dolly like whoa*, this made me extraordinarily happy.

Murphy pays tribute to the fact that Dolly is a freaking HERO and role model to us all, and she even brings up the lyrics to “Jolene,” which I have discussed ad nauseam with Meredith.**

I mean, Dolly Parton–THE Dolly Parton–is singing to some mysterious Jolene who she thinks is more beautiful and more worthy than her, begging her not to take her man. It’s catchy and everyone knows the words, but to me, it’s this reminder that no matter who you are, there will always be someone prettier or smarter or thinner. Perfection is nothing more than a phantom shadow we’re all chasing.

PREACH.

*Exhibit A:

Sarah and Meredith, both wearing pink, standing in front of the Dollywood sign

Me and Meredith at Dollywood, the greatest place on Earth.

**Our conversation usually ends with a debate on how impossibly gorgeous Jolene must’ve been to make any man consider choosing her over Dolly. Full disclosure: this discussion is usually fueled by alcohol and “Jolene” on repeat.

Bonus Factor: Beauty Pageant

Screenshot from Drop Dead Gorgeous, with teenage girls in the middle of a dance routine during a pageant

I’m a sucker for beauty pageants, and Miss Teen Blue Bonnet does not disappoint. Also, thanks to Willowdean’s mom, I now have a new favorite expression: Let the glitter fall where it may.

Bonus Factor: Texas

Tim Riggins and Lyla Collette toasting with beers while sitting on chairs outside in Friday Night Lights

Julie Murphy lives in the Dallas area, and you can tell that she knows Texas. There’s the all-important football, homecoming mums (!!!), and an apt description of the weather:

… South Texas is only known to have two seasons: Hot as Balls and Not Quite as Hot as Balls.

Pretty much.

Relationship Status: I Will Always Love You

Dumplin’, as Dolly would say, you’re a diamond in a rhinestone world. You’re bold and colorful and fabulously unique, and like islands in the stream, no one can come between us.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my review copy from Balzer + Bray. I received neither money nor cocktails for this review (dammit).

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Sarah splits her time between Dallas and Austin, and believes there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, which is part of why she started FYA in 2009. Growing up, she thought she was a Mary Anne, but she's finally starting to accept the fact that she's actually a Kristy.