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Beauty Queens - Libba Bray In most ways, this book was absolutely written for me. It is LOST + Miss Congeniality + Susan Faludi’s Backlash. Sarah Palin and GW stand-ins make appearances to be generally villainous. It has lovely, lovely girls, lots of action, and some pretty hilarious jokes. Oh, and hilarious jokes in the footnotes. (Because why use endnotes, people? No need to be coy.) There is one about putting dolls on a pedestal that is my favorite joke in the book, if you want to know. The odd thing about the book is that it mixes slapstick detachment and satire with some pretty touching, beautiful moments. Sometimes that is jarring. Sometimes the girls are caricatures of social stereotypes, and other times they are breathtaking hope for the future. It was difficult for me to transition between the two, but in general, I really loved both moods of the story.

So, this is not going to be a fair review. I’d say it’s even going to be borderline hypocritical. I did a lot of sputtering about a feminist critique of Bridesmaids because WTF, people, does everything have to be the ideal feminist mantra? Sometimes a story about girls is just a story about girls. The tough thing about this book is that I feel like it was making some pretty purposeful feminist statements, so I think it opened itself up to more criticism because of that. It’s not really fair that I feel that way, and I found the things it did really thought provoking, but the book’s going to get some extra scrutiny over it.

First, I love Mary Lou. I love love love her. Even though I will not get over my bitter disappointment about pirates this easily, I love her story. I think the writing is electric around her. I love her.

I love the other girls as well, but Mary Lou is special. I think each girl in the story represents overcoming some kind of stigmatized female experience. Maybe Mary Lou’s experience was more real to Ms. Bray because I found it absolutely vivid, where the others seemed researched. In the way that all the girls are reactions to misogyny (and by that I don’t mean sexism from men. I like how Bray is clear about how women perpetuate misogyny, too.) the story made me a little sad. I always look for those beautiful female characters who are not reacting to anyone, but just being wonderful in who they are. I like seeing women who aren’t putting on a show. I think it would be easy to compare these girls to Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, but I really think Elle remains herself throughout the movie. She doesn’t have a moment where she turns on herself and says, “Oh wait. I am an idiot because I care about pretty things.” That is who she is in the beginning and it saves the day in the end.

I also love how Adina talks about girls looking to romantic relationships for self-definition. If someone desires us, it makes us desirable. It makes a relationship more than it is, and something it shouldn't be. I love how she identifies it and says that it is not how she wants to be.

A few things that troubled me, though. This book starts with the premise that a girl would only do pageants because of a social or emotional disturbance. As the story unravels, the girls reveal, one by one, the social or emotional wounds that led them to be in the pageant. I don’t know how I feel about that assumption. I like the idea that pageant girls can kick ass, too, but I don’t love the idea that being pretty is the sign of psychological disturbance. To be fair, on a few occasions, Bray does very consciously make the point that it’s okay to like being pretty, but the assumption is still there, underlying the whole book.

The other premise that shows up in the book is that girls need an island to overcome what we're socially trained to be. That's more of a thesis of the book, as Penny very correctly points out. I'm not totally down with that idea either. It has this kind of hopelessness, like culture is so entrenched in unhealthy expectations for girls that there is no room for real girls in culture. That idea bums me out, and I don't think it's true. There is an Awakening quality to it that I hope strong female writers get past, and that I think some have gotten past. We are here! The world is for us too!! Don't give it up, girls, and retreat to your own private islands. I mean, I love The Awakening and I love The Yellow Wallpaper and The Bell Jar, but I think there also needs to be room for girls in culture. There need to be elbowing and kidney-kicks to people who try to tell girls that the world isn't for them. I don't think floating away to an island is the answer for girls becasue it is aka suicide, for those of you who are not up on your hopeless women writers. And that is not the answer.

Anyway, back to the girls. I don’t want to spoiler who all the girls are for you, because some of the reveals are pretty fun. None of them are surprising, but they are pretty fun. Unfortunately, I think that the way the girls end up is really important to the way I’m looking at the book, so I’m going to hide a little bit of my discussion of it. I’d really say go read it for yourself before you read my spoilers because what I’m saying will probably get into your brain in a way that will make your reading of it less fun. So, come back once you’ve read it, and we’ll discuss.

It was a little troubling to me that it seemed in the end like the girls mostly settled down, had two and a half kids, and then drove them to soccer practice. (I know only one really did the soccer thing, but I feel like that idea was there for a lot of them.) It was just a little anti-climactic.

But, Adina and Taylor actually really made me sad. I am reading this book Motherless Daughters – because that is what I am – and it is a devastatingly poignant book for me. Those two girls are the motherless daughters in the book (Taylor from physical abandonment, and Adina from emotional abandonment), and it made me really sad that they were still so lost at the end of the book. I know there is a sort of power in the way they are lost, with Taylor as the jungle queen, and Adina refusing to sell her soul for emotional affirmation from men. Still, though, they made me sad. They were that stigma of the motherless daughter, the thing we can’t talk about because it is too devastating. What if all of our mothers left us? It doesn’t seem fair to me to think of those girls as being unable to emotionally connect with other people in a sane and mutually giving way.

And Shanti and Nicole felt a little funny to me in that way, too. The book goes into how marginalizing the token ethnic friend thing is, but just because you’re recognizing it doesn’t mean you’re not doing it yourself. It was just slightly uncomfortable. I mean, those girls were lovely, and I really like them, but I felt like, rather than be the sassy ethnic friend, they were only a reaction to the sassy ethnic friend. They didn’t have much more dimension than that.

Jennifer and Petra were a little better than that, I thought. They both had more humanity and specificity, even thought they were so purposely put in the book so that there would be one of each. I’m okay with that, though. Again, I liked the girls.

It’s tough because there were a lot of characters in this book. It was difficult to give them all humanity and depth, I’m sure, and so some worked out better than others. There were a couple of points where, if I had put the book down for a little while, I would come back to it and forget who Miss New Mexico or Ohio were. There was a lot going on. Still, though, it was really fun and funny, and tear-jerky at a couple of points for me. It will definitely not be a five-star book for everyone, but I had a beautiful day out in the hammock reading it, so it is giving a halo to the experience. Also, as I guessed from the moment I first saw its cover, I am the intended audience for this book.