I’ve heard Puddin’ by Julie Murphy described as a companion novel to Dumplin’. It was my impression that a companion novel is one in which we get the same time period from a different perspective. However, Puddin’ takes place after the end of Dumplin’ and we’ve switched narrators. Another fat girl and one of my favorite characters in Dumplin’, the focus is now Millie Michalchuck. Or so I thought.
The chapters alternate between Millie Michaelchuck and Callie Reyes (though Callie’s chapters are always longer). Yes, Callie, the “horrible human” who stole Willowdean’s best friend in Dumplin’. Callie is a member of the high school dance team, a team that wins championships but is financially neglected in favor of the always-losing football team. When the dance team’s only sponsor pulls funding because the business is struggling, Callie and the team vandalize the business to get revenge.
Millie’s uncle owns that business, and when she gets to work the next morning and finds the place trashed, she calls the police. Millie is able to identify one person in the video — Callie — thanks to a one-of-a-kind necklace Callie was wearing. Callie’s punishment is she’s kicked off the dance team and must pay her debt to the business by working there for free. With Millie.
My husband and I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by two women: Erin Mallon (voice of Millie) and Kyla Garcia (voice of Callie). Millie’s narrator has a nervous but determined delivery, which fit with Millie’s meticulous, organized personality. Callie’s narrator is brash, speaking with confidence and emphasizing words the way know-it-all popular girls do. Both fit well with their characters, and I was pleased that the publisher found a Latina voice narrator to play Callie Reyes. It makes a difference to readers when people are represented accurately.
Yet, I felt like Millie was presented as too “woke” in some places. Occasionally, this seventeen-year-old girl’s speech sounds like it was pulled directly off of social justice Twitter, such as checking her privilege because she’s white and Callie is half Mexican-American. And when she learns her friend is asexual, she admits that she doesn’t know much about it, that she will learn, and that it’s not her friend’s job to teach her. She actually says those things. A boy says to Callie, “I don’t mean to objectify you” but he likes watching Callie walk. The overly-aware characters rang false, though I can appreciate that author Julie Murphy is planting ideas about privilege and objectification in the mind’s of teen readers. Respect is never a bad lesson. **EDIT** one thing I didn’t mention is that the novel is set in a VERY small town in Texas, a city known for it’s love of football and pageant queens. Everything about the town seems conservative. Also, the characters never get on social media. Yes, they text each other, but if Millie is woke in a bubble, I would think she’d engage on social media.
My disappointment is that this is Callie’s story, not Millie’s. It’s Callie who grows and learns, with Millie to help her along the way. Strange, because there was so much Murphy could have unpacked with Millie. Millie’s main conundrum is that she wants to apply to a journalism camp at the University of Texas instead of returning to fat camp for the 9th summer like her mother wants her to. Millie doesn’t want to be behind the scenes, she wants to be on the news. And everyone tells her that she’s fat and should be realistic.
For someone who thinks the news is her life, SHE NEVER ENGAGES WITH IT. This book is neutered from current politics, even local stuff. Millie doesn’t watch, read, or listen to any news. She’s focused on a boy instead. Julie Murphy could have chosen to have Millie on the local school paper. Or, many high schools have small TV studios in which students create news videos. Millie’s only brush with “news” is when she reads the day’s announcements — what’s for lunch, when the next dance is, that sort of thing — over the principal’s intercom.
While Puddin’ passes the test for being a fat-positive book, I was forced to ask if being kissed is the most important thing in a YA story about a fat girl. We already got that in Dumplin’ — and in a much better, more nuanced romantic plot line. And it’s not that Millie isn’t worthy of a boyfriend. But her personality and her ambitions were far behind teaching Callie to be nice and kissing her crush. I recommend this book, and I know people will enjoy it, but it left me wanting something stronger.