Dumplin’, the 2015 young adult novel by Julie Murphy, opens strong with an epigraph quoting Dolly Parton: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose”. It’s a theme that runs through the story about a plus-size small-town gal trying to figure out where she fits in a world not made for her.

Dumplin' - Julie Murphy - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Dumplin’ is set in a small Southern town, known only for having the longest-running beauty pageant in the state of Texas. Willowdean ‘Will’ Dixon has never really fit in, not even in her own family, but she doesn’t mind – or she didn’t, until she developed strong feelings for her gorgeous co-worker at the local burger joint. All of a sudden, Will (known “affectionately” as Dumplin’ by her mother) is self-conscious about her size, and she’s desperate to find a way back to comfort in her own skin.

The only plus-size ‘role model’ Will ever had was her Aunt Lucy, a large woman who passed away shortly before the book begins. Lucy was kind and loving, but also deeply insecure. As Will puts it, “There are so many things that Lucy never did. Not because she couldn’t, but because she told herself she couldn’t, and no one made her believe otherwise.”

Determined to avoid a future life like Lucy’s, Will does the one big thing her aunt was never brave enough to do: enter the beauty pageant. To her mother’s shock, Dumplin’ has no intention of losing weight to fit into a pageant dress (and that’s never really a factor in the story). She enters simply to prove to herself that she can, a fake-it-’til-you-make-it route to body acceptance.

So, it sounds like it should be a heartfelt feel-good read, right? But I found Dumplin’ fairly depressing. Will seems to make ‘being fat’ her whole personality. Hardly a page goes by where she doesn’t mention it. I know that teenagers, especially those who don’t fit the mold of traditional beauty standards, can be a bit obsessive and self-critical, but it just felt over the top.

That’s especially given that Will’s judgement extended to other characters – there wasn’t a single character in Dumplin’ who wasn’t defined by their appearance (fat, skinny, buck-toothed, or otherwise). Will even uses a few ableist slurs that made me grit my teeth. It just wasn’t what I’d been hoping for in a book positioned as an ode to self-love and body positivity. Definitely not in the spirit of Saint Dolly!

I feel like this is a kind of writerly tic that Julie Murphy has been able to overcome, though. I don’t recall it being an issue at all in If The Shoe Fits, one of her later novels. There we got a heroine who was plus-sized and proud, and far more realistic in terms of her self-perception. So, if you’re looking for an uplifting book that places a fat woman in the spotlight and lets her get the man and the happily-ever-after, that’s probably a better one to pick up.

The strongest recommendation I can make for Dumplin’ is that it’s full of characters who love and admire Dolly Parton (even if they don’t quite manage to live by her ethos). It’s wonderful to see such a generous, wonderful woman eulogised in fiction, especially a book aimed at younger readers who might need prompting to find out more about her.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dumplin’:

  • “the book has zero surprises in store for the reader. if you’ve ever read a book before you should steer clear, and if you haven’t, you should read something else.” – Evan Ørndal Lien
  • “This was supposed to be a revolution in heels–and what happens? Willowdean remains somewhat judgmental, and worse, the Roman empire wins! Ugh.” – Stephanie McCall
  • “Unfortunately, this dumpling was a little too bland for my taste.” – Books, Tea, Insanity