“Go Big or Go Home” reads the subtitle of Julie Murphy’s Dumplin‘. And it’s a great fit – Dumplin’ is big smiles, and big heart. After slogging through a few heavy reads, it was exactly what I was looking for. “I need something cheerful, damn it,” I told my friend Skye of the Spork Review after my last melodramatic cliffhanger. After hearing about this book left and right, I finally picked it up from the public library a couple days ago.
I love the library, and not just because I’m a librarian. Since I signed my soul over to academia, my life has felt consumed by work. My recent reading roll has been a welcome break for that. Lately the public library has become my home away from home. It’s one of those treasured public spaces for me, a bit like the movies, an exercise in communal entertainment. Only the library is so much more. It truly is one of those limitless public places, there to serve everyone.
But existing in public spaces can present some challenges. Willowdean Dickson, unapologetic fat girl, is all too aware of this. We catch up with Will on her summer vacation, just a few months after the death of her beloved Aunt Lucy. Will’s summer plans – hang out with her best friend El and save up some cash by working at fast food joint Harpy’s – are disrupted by a variety of complications, ranging from the attention of handsome “Peachbutt” private school boy Bo and a parade of zealous would-be beauty pageant queens.
Though her mother is pageant royalty, Will has never been considered a contender. Why would she be? She’s fat. But as the school year starts back up and her relationships begin to change around her, Will finds herself changing with them. She can only be the beauty queen’s daughter and the pretty girl’s chubby sidekick for so long. The addition of big (athletic big, Will clarifies) football player Mitch makes for a sort of love triangle, one of my least favorite tropes, but mercifully this one is low-key and largely free of drama.
Murphy makes it abundantly clear that it’s never about winning for Will. Her decision to enter the beauty pageant isn’t about proving herself to anyone but herself. Being a big girl shouldn’t disqualify her from the same things other girls want, whether it’s to get the guy or wear a cute red swimsuit. In the end, it doesn’t matter who does win the pageant – what matters is that Will has finally come to accept that she deserves as much as any other girl, something she lost sight of along the way.
It’s hard to capture exactly what made Dumplin’ such a wonderful read. It’s rare that a book will make me “Awww” out loud, or smile like my face is about to crack open. Dumplin’ did both. It was such a sincere, sweet read, and exactly what I needed with all the stress and complication currently going on in my life. Murphy’s characters are all remarkably believable, endearingly human and easy to relate to. I can’t recommend this book enough! I only wish it had been a bit longer, to be perfectly honest – as I turned the last page, I found myself missing the protagonists already. I’ll definitely be reading more of Murphy’s work in the future, and I hope you will too.