fiction · YA

Book Review: Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

The 2023 Popsugar Reading Challenge called for a romance with a fat lead, so I prowled through the lists and came across one I always wanted to read: Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy (Balzer + Bray, 2015). I know this was a Netflix movie a while back; I always wanted to watch it, but never got around to it (with a young kid at the time, my TV time was extremely limited). This seemed like a good opportunity to finally get this book into my head.

Willowdean Dickson (Dumplin’ to her mother) is fat and that’s fine by her. She’s comfortable with herself, no thanks to her mother, who runs the biggest beauty pageant in Texas and who’s never been able to come to terms with her daughter’s size. The bigger problem right now is that Willowdean is still mourning the death of her aunt Lucy six months ago. Lucy understood about size, and she never once made Willowdean feel less-than. Thanks to her, Willowdean learned not only to love Dolly Parton, but herself as well.

But Lucy’s gone now, Mom is in full-on crazy pageant mode, her best friend Ellen is moving on in ways that make Willowdean unsure of herself, and Bo, the hot guy at work, is paying attention to her in a way she never expected he would. And suddenly, everything’s thrown out of balance. Willowdean’s confidence in herself – her one constant – is shaken. To prove to herself and her mother that she’s worthy of being a beauty queen as well, she and her new group of friends all sign up for the pageant. Texas beauty pageants may never be the same!

This was cute, and fun. Any book with unexpected drag queens has got to be a good time! There’s so much grief in this book; Willowdean’s closeness with her aunt Lucy was a major part of her life, and her grief at Lucy’s passing colors just about every part of this story, even though much of it remains unspoken. It was Lucy who taught Willowdean to love herself and be confident that she deserved all the best things in life, even though Lucy couldn’t quite seem to fully reach that point herself. I also felt bad for Willowdean’s mother; it’s easy to demonize her and she definitely has many flaws…but she’s also a product of the town she’s lived in all her life, and it didn’t seem like there were many people who encouraged her to think bigger than that (sure, Lucy’s mind was bigger, but some people are able to reach that point themselves, and others need pushing). It’s no wonder she and Willowdean have such a contentious relationship. 

I saw that a few Goodreads reviews were upset with this view for not being as body positive as it’s marketed as, and…I understand their criticism, and I think it’s valid, as it can definitely be read that way. I also think that sometimes we have to work to retain our confidence when thrown into new, unanticipated situations, as Willowdean was with her relationship with Bo. Sometimes throwing someone else in the mix shakes us and we have to fight to keep hold of who we know we are. That’s how I saw this. Willowdean became stirred, but ultimately not permanently shaken, and I liked that. 

I enjoyed this one.

Visit Julie Murphy’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


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