Dumplin’ is a unique and heartwarming novel, written by Julie Murphy.
Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean Dickson (dubbed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty queen mum) has always been at home in her own skin. With her all-American beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked… until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast-food joint. There she meets Private School Bo, a former jock, and she isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to him. But she’s surprised when he seems to like her back.
Instead of finding more self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant – along with several other unlikely candidates – to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as anyone else does. Along the way, she’ll shock the hell out of Clover City – and maybe herself most of all.
Ever since I heard about Dumplin’ I’ve been dying to read it. I was so excited when I finally picked it up from my bookstore and opened it up as soon as I got home. This book was one that I’d heard quite a few things about and I had slightly built a picture of what it was going to be like in my mind. It wasn’t exactly how I imagined it to be, but I think that’s a good thing. A brilliant thing, in fact. What a dull world it would be if every book we ever heard about was exactly what we had expected. No – I love surprises. I’m pleased to say that this book pleasantly surprised me, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what Julie Murphy writes next.
The one thing I guessed this book was going to revolve around was body positivity. Yes, this book deals with those types of issues and sends the reader the message to love and accept the body you have, but I wouldn’t say that’s the main aspect of the book. There’s so much more to it than that. This book isn’t some coming-of-age story about learning to accept yourself, like I thought it would be. Willowdean already accepts and loves her body (apart from the rare few occasions where we see these flashes of self-doubt and uncertainty), and therefore this isn’t some predictable book about a teenage girl trying to love herself and fit in. Or worse, decide that she wanted to lose weight to become “the person she wanted to be”. Dumplin’ preaches self-love in its own unique, non-cheesy way.
One of the things I loved most about this book was that it wasn’t solely focussed on this exploration of embracing the person you are and having the courage to remain that person even when the world criticises you. It’s about the relationship you have with your family, your friends, and also with the people you choose to be romantically involved with. There’s a lot of emphasis on friends and how growing up doesn’t necessarily have to mean growing apart, which I loved reading about. The friendship between Willowdean and El felt so real. The problems they faced together and the things they overcame was touching and beautiful to read about.
I also loved seeing the relationship between Willowdean and her mother grow and change. In the beginning, their relationship is fragmented and somewhat strained, with both of them to blame. I liked seeing how Julie Murphy didn’t try and make one particular character to blame for the initial deterioration of their relationship. Instead, we were able to read about a mother who just wanted her daughter to fit into the “weight standards” of society, not understanding that Willowdean was perfectly confident and happy being how she is. Their relationship is definitely one of my favourite parts of this book.
Another relationship that I enjoyed reading about was the relationship Willowdean had with the love interest(s?). Initially, when one guy – who was muscular and on the football team – became rather close with her, she was sceptical. Heck, so was I. I felt for Willowdean and I didn’t want her to get hurt. But I loved seeing her realise that weight shouldn’t be a contributing factor to “liking someone” and there is no “perfect weight”. We’re all people and we all have bodies – and the amount of gravitational force we have on this dead rock floating in the middle of this vast universe is irrelevant. Love is love, and love has no boundaries. Love is certainly not limited to a dress size, so don’t ever think you’re not worthy of someone’s love.
On a slightly different note, I wasn’t entirely pleased with the love triangle in this book. I felt like it just complicated things and didn’t need to have been included. I would have instead liked to have seen Willowdean form a close friendship with this other guy, not be involved with him as well. I didn’t like how Willowdean effectively used these guys whenever she felt like it and then got annoyed when they didn’t want to submit themselves to her games. But then again, Willowdean is only human, and we all make mistakes. I suppose all that matters is that she figured that all out in the end, and I’m pleased with how her relationships ended up.
Willowdean was both a character I loved and had some problems with, and I’m still trying to work out how that can be. Let’s talk a little bit about what I liked about her first. I loved how Willowdean wasn’t afraid to use the word “fat” – and she acknowledges that it’s simply a word used to describe something and shouldn’t have negative connotations. She calls herself fat not for sympathy or pity or even for people to look twice at her and say (you know how they do) “Oh, you’re not fat! You’re simply curvy and carry more weight than some others”. After Willowdean pointed this all out to us, I’ve really come to hate people treating the “fat” as a cuss word, because it’s not and it shouldn’t be used as one. There’s nothing wrong with Willowdean saying she’s fat, because it would be like me saying I have brown eyes. It’s simply something about ourselves and our appearance that can be stated.
While Willowdean is confident, she’s not so overconfident that she’s not relatable. She knows she’s fat and is fairly confident about that fact, also realising that dropping a few pounds wouldn’t dramatically change her life. However, there’s times when she feels as though she’s trapped inside a body that is too big for her and feels as though she shouldn’t be in stores that don’t carry sizes big enough for her. While she may be outwardly self-assured most of the time, she still occasionally has worries about herself and her appearance, like everyone does. She’s not immune to the criticisms of society and she isn’t some emotionless robot who can repel any negative comment towards her. She just felt so human with all of her fears and doubts and flaws.
But Willowdean wasn’t perfect. Far from it, in fact. But honestly, that’s what makes her feel so alive and real. If she was simply the perfect advocate for confidence and self-love, we wouldn’t have been able to relate to her or connect with her so well. Instead, Julie Murphy managed to create a vibrant, honest character who we could all see pieces of ourselves in. One problem I had with Willowdean was that she was somewhat hypocritical. She would act positive and confident about her own body but when it came to someone else, she would judge them and rationalise the bullying they were being exposed to, simply because of what they looked like. I understand that judging other people and mentally putting them down is something a lot of people do, but I felt slightly betrayed when Willowdean took part in such awful things. I thought that she, of all people, would know what it felt like to be judged and criticised by society.
Not only would she make fun of other people who didn’t fit into the socially-accepted idea of “beauty”, but she would criticise and shame “skinny” people too. I felt myself drift a little farther from her each time she did this, and I wished she didn’t think like that. But, of course, people are conditioned by society to act and think certain ways and to rationalise your behaviour and thoughts by observing others. It’s not entirely her fault – she’s a part of the messed-up society we live in, too. I just wish she didn’t have to hate on other people in a book that claimed to be preaching all about self-love.
Another thing I really loved about this book was the unique array of characters – everyone from drag queens to a number of people from the LGBTQ+ community. I was pleased to find that no one was the summary of their stereotype. They all had unique and strong personalities and I loved getting to know all of them. Ultimately, Dumplin’ is a fun and positive book I’d give it a score of 8 out of 10. I’m really looking forward to reading what Julie writes next! So let’s talk! Have you read this book? Are you planning on reading it? What are your thoughts on the “socially-accepted idea of beauty”? Is there such thing as beauty, or is it all subjective? Who decides who is beautiful and who isn’t? Is weight important in finding love? There’s so many things we can keep discussing down in the comments, and I’d love to have your input 🙂