Julie Murphy’s Dumplin‘ is not at all what folks say it is. Take a sec and go check out the dust cover synopsis at Amazon. They make it sound like Dumplin’ is a book about a give-no-fucks fat girl with the confidence of a mediocre white man telling a more experienced woman of color how to do her own damn job (MAXIMUM CONFIDENCE LEVELS) who enters the town’s fabled beauty contest to shock and awe the citizenry with her talent, charm, and sex appeal. It is so not that (only a dude could write that blurb), because it is so much less – and so much more.
In fact, Willowdean Dickson feels about her body the way most girls do – deeply, intensely ambivalent. Most of the time it’s fine! You don’t even notice it that much! It’s just this thing that carries your brain around all day and lets you do stuff like sit in a desk or drive a car to your best friend’s house. Sometimes you think about it and feel grateful for it because it lets you lift heavy things or open the sliding glass door when it gets jammed. But then other times you feel bad about it because the skinny girls at the pool keep looking at you, and you know they’re talking about that red splotch on the inside of your thighs where you get chub rub on hot days and you aren’t wearing one of those stupid old lady swimsuits with the built-in skirt to hide your ass and thighs. You feel like you should cover up, but why should you have to do that when everyone else is sunning? Why is this so awkward? Arrgghhh! Honestly, Willowdean reads to me like Lindy West in her late adolescence, and I would die of contentment if she would read the book and let me know if that was true or not. #Lindyrules #Lindyforlyfe
This is a coming-of-age story in the best sort of way. It isn’t about Willowdean’s sexual awakening, or acceptance of her body, or reconciliation with her mother, or learning how to make grown-up friendships, although all those things do happen. It’s about Willowdean learning how to figure out who she is at the center of herself, and how to stand up for that girl. This self-identity question is a fundamental aspect of the transition from adolescence to early adulthood, and a critical component to a successful life. Murphy gives us the privilege of watching this challenging – sometimes painful, sometimes euphoric – revelatory process unfold for Willowdean. Her voice is so authentic, many readers will feel as though Willowdean IS them.
Some other truly wonderful things about this book:
- Actually realistic depiction of best girlfriend-ship (surprise, dudes, it’s not all naked pillow fights!)
- Actually realistic depiction of best girlfriend fights (95% unfolds in silence)
- An honest exploration of grief for a person who was loved but did not live her best life
- Supporting characters with three dimensions
- Dolly Parton made understandable and palatable for non-Dolly fans
- A non-judgy, but also kinda judgy in that we-can-judge-our-own-shit sort of way, peek into pageant life for Southern folks
- Surprise drag queens
Dumplin’ is a fast read, but that’s because it’s good, not because it’s easy. The end is reminiscent of Sarai Walker’s triumphant “Burst!” at the end of Dietland, and I mean that in the best possible way.