YALSA 2016 HUB Challenge: Dumplin’ and Gabi: A Girl in Pieces

As we inch our way to the finish line (17/25 titles finished!) we remain behind on our reviews.  Today, we’ll be discussing both Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ and Isabel Quintero’s Gabi: A Girl in Pieces.

Both novels are geared towards older teens, and both tackle female body image as one of their central themes.  But, in their similarity, Gabi: A Girl in Pieces suffers greatly by comparison.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, here again is a novel that reads as a cloying, condescending ‘Very Special Episode.’

Ahh, who cares . . . this needs to be shouted from the rooftops:

ATTENTION YA AUTHORS: STOP TALKING DOWN TO YOUR READERS.  NO ONE WANTS TO READ A BOOK THAT READS LIKE A 1950’s PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT.

If we could purge our shelves of all these substandard books and nothing was left but books as well-crafted as Murphy’s, I would be a happy librarian.

“So we dropped her off — older and babyless.  But at least she was alive.  Sort of.”

Furthermore, though reviews of the novel abound that praise its feminism, I found its treatment of rape and especially abortion to be deeply offensive (second authorial PSA: not everyone is grief-stricken when they have an abortion).

The only positive thing I can say about Gabi: A Girl in Pieces is in praising its audiobook version (read by Kyla Garcia and a Top Ten Amazing Audiobooks winner).

But let’s talk more about what works in YA versus what doesn’t (especially since I could go on for pages about how much I love Dumplin’).

Read-a-likes:  Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz; The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros; Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Rorres Sanchez

Trigger warnings:  Yeah, pretty much everything.  Rape, abortion, drug use, suicide, LGBT-discriminator, drug addiction, teen pregnancy . . . the list (annoyingly) goes on and on.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

Dumplin’ benefited from an expansive pre-publication marketing campaign, but despite seeing countless tumblr posts praising the novel, I (stupidly) avoided Dumplin’ for almost a year because I thought it would be too painful to read.  A teenager dealing with being overweight?  A little too damn familiar for me.

And, indeed, there are SO many painful moments in Dumplin’ that ring true to life.  But, crucially, not all of them revolve around Willowdean’s weight: shopping with thin friends when you can’t fit in any of the clothes; being the only virgin in your friend group; losing a family member; money issues . . .

Most beautifully, Murphy reminds us that though being unable to conform to traditional beauty standards causes plenty of pain of its own, losing weight is not a panacea.

“‘I am happy,’ I say, every syllable perfectly even.  I don’t know how much truth there is to that, but I can’t imagine that fifteen or even fifty pounds would change how much I miss Lucy, how confused I am by Bo, or the growing distance between me and El.”

In some ways, Willowdean is obviously an unrealistic character — her witty, perfect comebacks are reminiscent of Gilmore Girls dialogue — but they’re just so funny that I couldn’t bring myself to mind.

Likewise, Willowdean and Bo’s relationship evolves in a way perhaps only possible in fiction, but again, it is so satisfactory for the reader that I can’t fault it.  Bo and Willowdean begin a furtive relationship with no labels and both quickly realize that the arrangement isn’t going to last:

“And that’s not how Bo and I have worked.  There are no strings.  No responsibilities.”

“He starts his car and I start mine.  This thing between us is a roller coaster.  The brakes might be out and the tracks might be on fire, but I can’t make myself get off the ride.”

The secretive nature of their interactions makes the reader shudder with dread (though the make-out scenes are certainly enjoyably steamy to read!).  After all, especially for adult readers, who can’t relate to that two-faced relationship dynamic in which every moment you spend with the guy/girl is magic . . . a feeling which quickly dissipates when you are apart and you have the time to realize all that isn’t working.

But, because this is a novel, Bo doesn’t turn out to be an a#* that leaves Willowdean for another no-strings-attached adventure, and Willowdean has enough agency to avoid crying into a bottle of wine and a bookstore shopping binge (these may or may not be this author’s deeply embarrassing personal examples).

Rather, their relationship flourishes under open communication and the raw emotionality of the two lovers.

“I hate seeing fat girls on TV or in movies, because the only way the world seems to be okay with putting a fat person on camera is if they’re miserable with themselves or if they’re the jolly best friend.”

“Then there are days when I really give zero flying fucks, and I am totally satisfied with this body of mine.  How can I be both of those people at once?”

Willowdean is allowed to be both confident and insecure  — sometimes all in the space of a single page.  That is what every fat girl and every thin girl (and everyone in between) needs to read and internalize.  Some days, we’ll strut around in our bra in front of our boyfriend, and other days we’ll wear a baggy sweater and say things aloud like ‘I’m fat and ugly.’

The bad days do not make us less of badass, body-positive feminists.  They simply make us realistic ones.

Read-a-likes: Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Euhlberg; The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler; The DUFF: Designated Ugly Fat Friend by Kody Keplinger

Trigger warnings: Bullying, body-image issues, LGBT-discrimination, ableism and disability

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