By Katy Goodwin-Bates
For just a moment, let’s forget that old adage about never judging a book by its cover and consider the glorious artwork which introduces Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’. Let’s cast our eye admiringly at the stark black background, against which the title and tagline “Go Big or Go Home” stand out so uncompromisingly. Let’s sigh over the simple figure of the book’s central character, Willowdean, clad in a frankly fierce red dress, sumptuously curvy, raising her hands to the skies in a gesture of pure celebration. “This is me,” she seems to be declaring. “This is me and I am fabulous.” If you are ever going to break the first rule of reading and judge a book by its cover, this is the one to start with, because it’s as devastatingly gorgeous as its cover art.
Dumplin’ is the somewhat unflattering nickname given to Willowdean by her mother, who seems perpetually distressed by her daughter’s size. Murphy does not disclose the specifics of Willowdean’s size, but it is sufficient for Will to introduce herself to new people as “Willowdean…Cashier, Dolly Parton enthusiast, and resident fat girl” (page 8). Will is used to being looked up and down, accustomed to raised eyebrows and disapproving glances. Does she care? Not particularly. Her flashes of insecurity arise during moments of vulnerability, like when introduced to skinny girls while wearing a swimsuit, for example, or during her first kiss with Bo, her hamburger-joint co-worker. The issue of Will’s weight is simultaneously central to the story and also not the point at all; this isn’t an inspiring tale of extreme weight loss or a story about a handsome prince learning to love a fat princess. It’s about Willowdean being exactly who she is and that being an outstanding thing.
“There’s something about swimsuits that make you think you’ve got to earn the right to wear them. And that’s wrong. Really, the criteria is simple. Do you have a body? Put a swimsuit on it.” – page 359
Allow me to rhapsodize about Willowdean for another minute. Her confidence made me want to whoop (not a reaction I generally experience when reading); when she asks “what about having huge, bumpy thighs means that I need to apologize?” (page 28) I had to restrain myself from shouting, “yes, Will, WHAT INDEED?” There’s something so refreshing about a character saying, “if it’s not your body, it’s not yours to comment on. Fat. Skinny. Short. Tall. It doesn’t matter” (page 33), especially when that person is fat. She’s not ashamed or embarrassed of her weight and this made me really, really love her. Will also has that vaguely misanthropic air which I find so appealing, explaining, “it’s not that I don’t like new people. It’s just that, in general, I do not like new people” (page 30), which guarantees her automatic entry into my fantasy friend squad.
On the subject of friends, Dumplin‘, despite being undoubtedly Will’s story, is a brilliant portrait of female friendship. In the time-honored tradition of teenage girls everywhere, she and her best friend, Ellen, experience some minor drama which develops into a full-on cold war, making this book instantly relatable to anyone who has ever been or known a teenage girl. Central to the novel is the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet beauty pageant, run by Will’s mother, and its apparent celebration of thin, beautiful girls. The competition becomes something quite different when Will’s entry inspires some other unconventional contestants, and a deeply touching yet gloriously entertaining new group is created. Millie, Amanda, and Hannah, like Will, are used to being ridiculed for their looks, and their resolve in facing their critics head on, particularly when this involves a swimsuit round, is inspiring.
As if all this wasn’t enough to make me love Dumplin‘, the book is set in Texas, which means lots of reflecting on what it is to be a “southern lady” and plenty of uses of “y’all,” a construct I have been trying to seamlessly work into my vocabulary since visiting Austin 6 years ago. Sadly, I think I am just too English to make it work. Julie Murphy lives in Texas, so I suppose writing in an authentic dialect might not be such an achievement, but the voices of the characters are so convincing that I found myself thinking in a Texan accent for the time I spent reading the book. This was a very entertaining side effect. At one point, Will reflects that, “to my mom, powdered iced tea is almost as bad as the possibility of being left behind in the wake of the rapture” (page 280), neatly summing up the generational and old south/new south divide. There’s an eye-rolling aspect to Willowdean’s narration which will resonate with anyone who’s ever been given unsolicited advice by their mother.
“It wasn’t just the look of Dolly that drew us in. It was the attitude that came with knowing how ridiculous people thought she looked, but never changing a thing because she felt good about herself. To us, she is…invincible.” – page 26
One of the novel’s most important personages is someone who isn’t actually a character in the book, something acknowledged by Will in the opening sentence: “all the best things in my life have started with a Dolly Parton song” (page 1). Dolly: the patron saint of Texan teenage girls, drag queens, and women whose size makes them the physical opposite of the pint-sized singer in every conceivable way. The references to Parton’s music in the novel provide the perfect soundtrack and bring proceedings to the perfect conclusion too. I will have Jolene in my head for at least a week.
Dumplin‘ is a book which inspired in me a feeling of relentless positivity. It has made me smile so much I am even starting to annoy myself. Not since Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda have I felt such an urge to snuggle a book to absorb its loveliness. Julie Murphy has written something which has such positive power, not just in terms of its treatment of body image but in everything it touches on, and I strongly feel that it should be required reading.
Dumplin’ is available now at GPL.