Double Book Review: Dumplin’ and Puddin’ by Julie Murphy

So for Women’s History month, I’m going to do mostly girl power/feminism-related posts. I read Dumplin’ when it first came out in 2015 because I, as a fat girl, loved the idea of another fat girl saying “Screw you” to everyone who body shames her (read: pretty much everyone). While I did like the book, it certainly wasn’t the most feminist thing I had ever read. Puddin’, however, which came out in 2018 and which I read in 2018, is a lot better in that respect. And it’s a better book overall. Here is my two-feature review of Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ and its companion Puddin’.

I enjoyed this book, but I was expecting Willowdean to be quirkier and more spirited, based on the book description. I expected her to face down more bullies. I expected this book to be somehow more uplifting. I think what made me like the book less than I could have was a set of things I have seen already in YA that are kind of getting old:

– Will likes a guy who is boring and a jerk
– She has a best friend who is the perfect pretty girl
– There are random, uninteresting bitchy people: antagonists for the sake of antagonism
– Will doesn’t do much to stand up to aforementioned bitchy people

Overall, I liked Will, but I was a bit disappointed with her. I thought she would be so much more confident and comfortable in her skin and so much spunkier. Like a won’t-take-any-of-your-crap kind of girl. And she leads on a boy she doesn’t have feelings for, which isn’t nice. I was expecting a stronger person. At the same time, I can’t fault her for chickening out when she should stand up for herself or for feeling bad about her appearance because I have made these mistakes and so do lots of other girls. Willowdean is a real person, and I guess I’m being too hard on her. But I still just wanted to see something different from the norm in this novel.

The beauty pageant antics and Will’s new, “non-pretty” friends, as well as her relationship with her recently-deceased Aunt Lucy, were some of the best parts of the book for me. They dredged up the most emotion, both happy and sad.

Despite its shortcomings, this is a fun, worthwhile story with an important message.

I enjoyed Puddin’ more than I enjoyed Dumplin’. Perhaps it was because of Millie; she is the fat-girl character I wanted in Willowdean in Dumplin’. Sure, Millie has insecurities and fails to be brave sometimes, but she’s more positive and more of a go-getter than most people, fat or no (and her cheery outlook isn’t even irritating because she isn’t an entirely unrealistic person; negative thoughts about the world are allowed, too). Millie is the kind of “strong heroine” people need to read more about. Not literal warriors or supergeniuses (although they are important, too), but real-life, every day girls who don’t let people push them around, who don’t sit idly and watch their lives pass them by and their dreams slip through their fingers. Girls who take action. Girls who find strength in being the bigger person (both literally and figuratively). As a fat girl myself, I also found a lot of Millie’s inner monologues super relatable, like when she states that she tries extra hard to be a nice, cheerful person because as a fat person, she needs to work harder to be accepted by those around her. Yes, girl. I feel you.

But Puddin’ is also about Callie Reyes, one of the mean people from Dumplin’. I have to say, it was really difficult to find any sympathy for her for more than half of the book. I found myself getting peeved as I read through her sections, awash as they were with self-pity and entitlement. I thought, “How are there people who are seriously like this?” Her backstory certainly doesn’t merit relatable-villain-status: she comes from a loving home, even though her parents are divorced and she feels uncomfortable with being the only half-Mexican person in her house with her mother, stepfather, and half-sister all being white. (Side note: I think this is the first book I’ve read wherein a character has divorced parents and gets along with both. It happens in real life, but not in YA literature for some reason, so I’m grateful for this portrayal). But anyway, back to Callie. I suppose redemption arcs aren’t as rewarding if they don’t take some time to develop. More realistic that way. Callie grew on me. And just like Millie, Callie is a woman of action who won’t be kicked around.

This book has a tad bit of romance for each heroine, although not with each other. They become friends. I have seen people express some disappointment with this, but I’m not disappointed at all. You know why? Because to me, friendship stories are more moving and more essential than romance stories. Recently, I had a long conversation with one of my guy friends. I can’t remember how we reached this particular topic, but he said that women hang out in groups and never really get personally close to each other because they view each other as competition for guys. I was flabbergasted by how stupid this was. Not only did it not make sense in terms of numbers (if women viewed each other as competition, why would we hang out with more of each other?) but he strongly implied that women mostly care about snagging men and don’t value other women. As if women don’t know the meaning of friendship. This wasn’t the first astoundingly ignorant statement I’ve heard an okay-seeming guy make, and many have come my way since. But this is one of the reasons we need stories about female friendships. I’m fairly certain every girl I know has female friends who mean the world to her. Friends who were there to support her when lovers, and even family, weren’t. Friends are a family of their own, and it’s good to have books that show what strong, worthwhile friendships look like. Millie and Callie’s friendship isn’t pitch-perfect, but it’s believable, heartwarming, and empowering. It’s a slow-burn friendship, and it also includes other girls. However, as much as I love groups of friends, I did think the story was overpopulated (the author, of course, had to include Willowdean and Ellen from Dumplin’). It’s hard to keep track of people sometimes when there’s already so much going on in this dual-POV book.

This book is just delightfully filled with girl power. Not only does it feature strong, realistic female characters that make friends with each other, it also features poignant interactions between women who don’t see much of each other and women who don’t even get along well. Because on some level, they realize that all girls are in this male-biased world together, and we need to support each other. These moments are subtle and meaningful, not man-hating at all. In fact, the men in the story are actual people, not just good-looking, macho pieces of meat. (I think Julie Murphy did a much better job this time around with love interests). Aside from a couple male bullies, the men are good fathers, good friends, and generally good people with their own aspirations and feelings beyond what the rest of the world would project onto them based on their appearances. And while you will rarely see me write that a romance is as important as a good friendship in a story, both the romances in this novel are still pretty important. Millie’s romance shows her that she is desirable and she can find someone she truly is compatible with, even though people will tell her otherwise because she’s fat. Callie’s romance shows her that, actually, she isn’t superior to everyone else, and that people aren’t always lucky to have her; sometimes she’s the one who’s lucky to have other people. (It took both a friendship and a romance to really hammer this point home for her).

Cheesy final statement: This book is a quilt of interesting characters, important choices, great relationships, and food-for-thought, all stitched together with southern charm. There.

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