Libba Bray – Beauty Queens
32. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (2011)
Length: 396 pages
Genre: Young Adult, Humor
Started: 21 March 2012
Finished: 22 March 2012
Where did it come from? / Why do I have it? Picked for me by my LibraryThing Secret Santa.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 29 December 2011.
It’s Lord of the Flies,
now with 100%
more teen beauty queens.
Summary: When the plane carrying the fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream Pageant crashes into a remote tropical island, the outlook for the survivors is pretty grim. Sure, struggling for survival on the beach will give the girls the opportunity to work on their tan, but the sweat makes their mascara run, and there’s no place to plug in a blowdryer. While some girls are convinced that the pageant’s sponsors, the Corporation, will be sending a rescue party shortly, and that they should therefore continue practicing their dance numbers and Q&A, other girls see the need for more practical measures. But can a group of girls who are used to being judged by what’s on the outside manage to parlay their talents into survival? Can these former competitors learn to work together not only to stay alive, but also to uncover the dark secrets hidden in the heart of the island?
Review: For the first hundred pages of this book, I wasn’t entirely sold. I liked the premise – Lost if Oceanic 815 was populated entirely with teenage pageant girls – but Bray’s humor wasn’t sitting particularly well with me. I was surprised, since I thought Going Bovine was hilarious, but in this case, the jokes just felt too on the nose to be really funny. Satire works best when it’s pointing up something that should have been obvious but wasn’t, but in Beauty Queens‘s case (particularly in the beginning), the jokes were centered on things that are already obvious – the corporate vacuousness of reality TV programming, the impossible body image of Barbie dolls, etc. – and therefore fell pretty flat.
Luckily, although the trying-too-hard humor never entirely went away, it did eventually fade to the background as the characters and the story took over. The book is really an ensemble piece, with most of the surviving girls getting a few chapters of POV, and it’s really impressive to watch each girl grow from her initial archetype (life-long Texas pageant girl, snarky reporter who’s only there to prove a point, ethnic minority, ditz, tomboy, etc.) into a whole person. Bray handles each girl’s reasons for being there, and her subsequent growth, with empathy and grace, and deals with some sensitive and serious issues with aplomb. She also never lets herself get bogged down by the more serious aspects of the story – they’re there, but they’re always wrapped up in a zany adventure farce. As demonstrated by Going Bovine, Bray can write zany really, really well, and while I did like the character bits in the middle third of the book more than the action-adventure of the last third, I was having enough fun to go along for the ride.
This is absolutely a book with a Message, and while that has a big potential to annoy, I think Beauty Queens is saved by the fact that it is a really, really important message, and not one that I’ve seen much of in contemporary YA lit. This book’s presented image, of girls freed from societal constraints becoming who they are, and who they want to be; of girls learning that liking guys does not mean that you need a guy to rescue you, is a potent one. It’s also a very refreshing break from the Twilights and Hush, Hushs and all the rash of other YA books that involve a girl falling for her abuser or subsuming her desires and her personality to achieve the ultimate goal in life of getting a man. But even though there is a message, and that message is not always entirely subtle, the tone of the book is never lecturing, or even entirely serious. I mean, feminism, yay!, but also: Miss New Mexico spends the entire book with a seat-back tray table embedded in her forehead. How can you not go for a book that’s got both? 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: The humor occasionally tries too hard, but it’s a fun, fast read with a solid emotional core underneath. Definitely recommended for anyone who is, used to be, or is in contact with a teen girl.
“Why do girls always feel like they have to apologize for giving an opinion or taking up space in the world? Have you ever noticed that?” Nicole asked. “You go on websites and some girl leaves a post and if it’s longer than three sentences or she’s expressing her thoughts about some topic, she usually ends with, ‘Sorry for the rant’ or ‘That may be dumb, but that’s what I think.'”
“I say sorry all the time. The other day, this lady bumped into me with her grocery cart and I said I was sorry,” Mary Lou said, shaking her head.
Shanti raised her hand. “I move we officially ban the word sorry from our vocabularies while we’re here.”
“I second that, if that’s okay,” Petra said, grinning. “If not, sorry.”
“I third it. Sorry.”
“I just scratched my nose. Sorry.”
“I just scratched my ass. Sorry.”
“I’m just getting up to stretch my legs. Sorry.”
“Sometimes I just want to burn down all the rules and start over,” Mary Lou said. Everyone waited for the punch line of “sorry,” but it never came. –p. 151
She snuggled closer and threaded her fingers through Jen’s, holding fast. There was more truth and hope in that one gesture than in all the things that had come before. These were the moments that kept you going, Jennifer thought. When you looked up to the sky and cried “Why?” sometimes the sky shrugged. Yet other times it answered with the warm assurance of linked hands. “Sorry,” it whispered on the wind. “Sorry for all the pain and loneliness and disappointment. But there is this, too.” –p. 176
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