Dumplin’ — Go Big or Go Home

Content Warning: a bully makes hateful comments to a few characters.

Julie Murphy’s novel Dumplin’, dedicated to “all the fat-bottomed girls,” came out in 2015 from a big publisher. Many reviewers have described how cute the story is, but I’m on the hunt for books that represent fat women positively without relying on a dieting or dating to happily ever after, so I’ll be looking at it from that perspective.

dumplin

Dumplin’ is the nickname Willowdean’s mother has used forever, yet as she gets older, Willowdean becomes self-conscious of what it implies when used on a fat girl like her.  Willowdean’s tiny Texas town is obsessed with the annual Clover City Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant, and Willowdean’s mother runs it. She won back in the 70s and has squished into the same sea-green dress since — even the year she gave birth to her daughter. There would be enough tension between a beauty queen mom and a fat daughter, but Julie Murphy adds other characters to add complexity to Willowdean’s life.

For example, Willowdean, her single mom, and her disabled aunt Lucy lived together for years. But Lucy died a few months before the book begins. Lucy is described as 498 pounds, she never left the house, and she died of a massive heart attack. The book opens itself up to let readers point out that being fat will kill a person. But Murphy takes another path: what if Lucy didn’t really live her life because society stopped her? Willowdean remembers ways Lucy was more of a protective mother than her actual mom. She also learns Lucy hung out with drag queens at some point.

Julie Murphy creates unique, memorable characters. Millie is another fat girl, one who wears puppy/kitty shirts or matching sweats — and not ironically. Amanda has a limp helped by a corrective shoe, but she’s also a talented soccer dribbler. Even one character’s step-mom, who appears very briefly, gets a chance to shine in a way that leaves you remembering why.

The story never turned out how I thought it would. The basic plot is a hot boy seems to like fat Willowdean, so what happens next? But when a boy who is a husky football player likes Willowdean enters the novel, I made assumptions. Nothing I assumed came true. The story is sweet, but it’s not sentimental. You’re not watching Bridget Jones run through the city in her underwear to catch Mark Darcy or any of those other stories that make you root because you know it will turn out happily ever after when a character’s landed the closing-scene kiss. As school, boys, and friendship gets complicated, Willowdean decides to enter the Clover City pageant to remind herself who she really is.

Murphy writes unapologetically about being fat. After a fight, Willowdean tells her conventionally pretty friend that she’s not the fat sidekick, which implies she’s the star of her own story and not in the backseat because she’s fat. The deceased aunt leaves clues about her life in her room, and Willowdean realizes that being fat didn’t stop her aunt from living life, the fear of society’s cruelty eventually did. And one of my favorite points: one fat girl isn’t the leader of all fat girls, meaning Willowdean entering the pageant doesn’t make her the head of a revolution that will destroy what we think of beauty queens. She’s Willowdean.

dumplin 2

The moments that really caught my breath, though, were acknowledgement of fat people being told “you’re not welcome.” Whether it was Willowdean rejecting Halloween because costumes for fat people don’t exist, or friend Ellen not realizing why Willowdean wouldn’t want to work with her in a clothes store in the mall where Willowdean couldn’t even buy clothes, I felt a pulse in my heart: yes. yes. yes. When Millie can’t fit into a restaurant booth, she simply grabs a chair and sits on the end. As the Texans would say, “Bless your heart!” I’m thankful that Puddin’ will come out later this year. It’s Julie Murphy’s companion novel to Dumplin’ about Millie a few months after the Clover City pageant!

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36 comments

  1. Love your description of the quiet but pervasive ways the author conveys how people are left out because of their weight. I imagine the book would be very resonant for some and even more eye opening for many others.

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    • I remember going shopping at the mall with my friends when I was in 9th grade and not being able to try on any of the clothes in the stores the three of them picked. I smiled and gave my opinion about their choices as they modeled clothes for me, but none of them seemed to notice I wasn’t really participating.

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  2. Willowdean sounds like very much her own person, and I like that. I like it, too, that she doesn’t take a sort of, “I speak for all fat people,’ role. Rather, she’s just herself. It’s good to see characters like that.

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  3. Oh man, I cannot imagine the stress of being fat with a beauty queen mum – what a complex situation to be in! This sounds fantastic and I will keep an eye out for it – I don’t think it’s available in the UK yet but hopefully it will be soon.

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    • It looks like it is available in the UK, so you should be able to get a copy at the library! The sad thing about the beauty queen mom is she used to be fat, like her sister and daughter, but in 9th grade her body slimmed down on its own. After that, she’s been dieting and exercising herself into that same dress year after year.

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    • I felt the same way. I don’t tend to like YA, and there was so much hype that I backed off to get some space. It’s only been since late December of 2015 that I started my reading fat women challenge, so Dumplin’ was added to the list then. It was also one of the few books I thought I might be able to talk my book club into. They seem to like YA.

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      • I’ve fallen off YA a bit myself. I think a lot of the works aren’t that original. They’re just following trends to make money. I was much more excited about YA in the past and I hope we see more interesting and more thoughtful works re-emerge.

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          • Unfortunately, yes. I don’t mind a trilogy when the story demands it. But when it’s just because it’s easier to market a series than a standalone, I’ll pass. I used to try to finish every series I started. Now I increasingly read only the first book.

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  4. Sounds like you’ve finally found the kind of book you’ve been searching for! Willowdean sounds like a great character – like Margot, I like that the author hasn’t suggested she speaks for all fat people, since that would be a generalisation too far. Hope the next one pleases you just as much. 🙂

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  5. I don’t mind a happily-ever-after ending, but sometimes that’s not what I’m craving. Sometimes a dash of reality is what’s needed for some stories. I loved that this author was able to surprise you with this one. I’m hoping to read it sometime this year. I hope Millie’s story is even more satisfying than this one!

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    • I felt like I knew Mille a bit better than Willowdean simply because we’re not in Millie’s head. For instance, there’s a part when a boy says he likes Willowdean, but because it’s all from her perspective, it’s hard to know what he likes. It’s not that he CAN’T like her, it’s that he has to like her for a reason. Maybe we’ll get to know Willowdean even better in Puddin’!

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  6. I’m glad you found a novel you liked, an author even, for this challenge. Even beyond my daughters and granddaughters there are lots of women in my life dealing with society judging them by their bodies.

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    • Dumplin’ should be published in Australia, so I hope you or your family read it! I think you mentioned being rattled by your own weight at times, so maybe Dumplin’ would be good for you (and an easier novel than some of those others you’ve been reading lately!).

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  7. Huh. This sounds good. I don’t know why I read so many bad reviews when it came out I actually ended up removing this from my wish list and didn’t even try to request a copy. Sigh. Should maybe check the library.

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    • I noticed on Goodreads everyone talks about body positivity, which isn’t the same as fat acceptance. B.P. started out as something for fast people that was co-opted by everyone (sort of like saying “all lives matter” in response to “black lives matter”). There are times when Willowdean is a bit shallow, but she’s mostly noting trends in high school. She later sees characters for their individual worth.

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  8. Hooray! I’m so glad you found a good one! And I also like having other readers wade through the YA for me – most of it puts me off so I tend to avoid it. The characters in this one sound great, which is what I like most about books. I wonder if we own it, or if we got it from the library… will have to check!

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