During my very first semester teaching college freshmen English, I assigned my students an evaluative essay to review any piece of media that they recently consumed. Several of the girls in my class reviewed the newest Netflix teen drama Dumplin’, and the vote was unanimous: this movie was capital-G great! I did not know it was based on a book, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it on my library shelf. I still have not viewed the movie, so I only have the book to go off of.
16-year-old Willowdean “Dumplin’” Dickson lives in a small Texas city where the biggest event of the year is the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant, which her mother, a former pageant winner, runs. Will knows she is not pageant material, but when she receives a little posthumous inspiration from her dead aunt Lucy, she decides to enter the pageant. In between all the talent practicing, dress fitting, and swimsuit contests, y’all can bet this little Texas town offers a whole truckload of drama.
I saw the appeal of Dumplin’ when the Netflix trailer dropped: a so-called fat girl challenging the norms of beauty by taking a small-town beauty pageant by storm. I suppose I should have known that such a story would come with its share of boy drama, even though the trailer made it look like Dumplin’ was about Will and her mom.
Will gets herself involved in a love triangle, which I did not expect. On one side is Bo, the athletic guy who works with Will at a local burger joint, and on the other is Mitch, a shy, awkward football player. While this triangle did not leave as bad a taste in my mouth as previous examples (definitely looking at you, Wings), it kind of made me roll my eyes sometimes.
Will mentions time and again how bad she feels about being with either boy. She can never seem to decide which one she actually likes. I like Will fine, but I really wished she would pick a lane and stick with it.
I was much more interested in Will’s relationship with her mom, Rosie, who gave Will the nickname “Dumplin'”. I like their dynamic. While Rosie is a former beauty pageant, she is not a total diva. She does devote a lot of time and effort to the pageant, and she does sometimes seem oblivious but she still obviously cares about Will, even if Will can’t always see it. They have their spats, but Rosie does what she can to raise Will well.
Rosie wants Will to lose weight, which Will sees as a personal jab. While it’s never blatantly stated, Rosie just wants Will to not end up like her aunt Lucy, who was sedentary, weighed close to 500 pounds, never left the house, and wound up dying of a heart attack. She is grieving for her sister, but she would prefer to cut the rope and move on, unlike Will, who really wants to keep Lucy’s things so her memories of her don’t fade.
If you’re a Dolly Parton fan, you’ll definitely get a kick out of this book, since Will and her best friend, Ellen, reference her songs many times. Will even attends a drag show where she watches drag queens walk a stage to Dolly’s songs.
While I could not quite relate to Will’s struggles as a fat girl, her struggle to figure out where she belongs is what drew me into her story. She feels comfortable in her body but inevitably is forced into scenarios that test that comfort, especially with boys and the pageant itself. Still, I enjoyed Will’s fierceness and how she ultimately performs in the pageant. She seems like the kind of friend I would have wanted in high school.
While the book focused less on the relationships I wanted more of, it’s still got a lot of heart and it’s easy to root for Will and the other girls that join her in the pageant. I appreciate that Rosie was not a caricatured pageant diva and that the ending surprised me a bit.