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’ 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.
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!