Book Review: Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray

May 28, 2011 at 9:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , )

I know I usually start off book reviews with a summary of the book, but I honestly have no idea how to give this book a proper summary that comes anywhere close to doing it justice. Here’s the jacket copy: The fifty contestants of the Miss Teen Dream Pageant thought this was going to be a fun trip to the beach, where they could parade in their state-appropriate costumes and compete in front of the cameras. But sadly, their airplane had another idea, crashing on a desert island and leaving the survivors stranded with little food, little water, and practically no eyeliner.
What’s a beauty queen to do? Continue to practice for the talent portion of the program- or wrestle snakes to the ground? Get a perfect tan- or learn to run wild? And what should happen when the sexy pirates show up?
Welcome to the heart of none-exfoliated darkness. Your tour guide? None other than Libba Bray, the hilarious, sensational, Printz Award-winning author of
A Great and Terrible Beauty and Going Bovine. The result is a novel that will make you laugh, make you think, and make you never see beauty the same way again.

In a nutshell? It’s Lost meets Lord of the Flies meets Heart of Darkness meets Drop Dead Gorgeous.

If that isn’t enough to make your head explode, I don’t know what is.

This book is hysterical, as in be careful about where you’re reading it because people will look at you oddly if you burst out laughing in public. Do not start this book when you have something else to do. Do not takes sips from your drink while looking at the pages, and make very sure you swallow before you return to reading. Eating is probably also a hazard. It’s ridiculous, beyond crazy, and over-the-top.

It’s also brilliantly sneaky.

Let’s be honest: almost the only people who take beauty pageants seriously are the contestants, their parents, and their handlers coaches. They are the butt of so many jokes, probably because they seem like such easy targets. I don’t mean in any way to imply that there aren’t incredibly intelligent, talented, wonderful women that participate in pageants. I’m just saying that picking on beauty queens is like the grown-up version of picking on cheerleaders. Miss Congeniality pretty much nailed public opinions of beauty pageants- they’re all self-absorbed airheads with a bizzare range of ‘skills and interests’ who give safe, politically correct interview answers, give the judges and audience exactly what they want, and might as well be talking Barbies for all the genuine personality they show.

They seem like caricatures.

And at first, that is exactly what Bray gives us. Every single one of these girls comes off as a caricature, a smiling and waving picture of a perfect primping princess. There’s the die-hard who lives and breathes pageants. There’s the one who seems too stupid to breathe and panics when faced with something that hasn’t been practiced and memorized for endless interviews. There’s the anti-pageant feminist who’s out for blood- or at least sabotage and humiliation of the companies and people that exploit women in such a way. There’s the sweetheart. There’s the lesbian. There’s the black girl. The other-minority girl, in this case Indian. The joyfully-overcoming-disability girl, in this case deaf. None of these girls are a surprise when we’re introduced to them, so we sit back and relax and settle in for a few hundred pages of sheer ridiculosity.

Then slowly, sneakily, they start to surprise us, and themselves. Secrets start to emerge, realizations are made, there are things to be discovered. Here’s the true genius: we laugh at the caricatures as we encounter them, but as continue, we start to find that some of these girls don’t even know who they are beneath those perky, perfect pageant personalities. They’ve been doing this so long, or so desperately feel the need to win, that they’ve entirely made themselves over in the images they think people want to see. And now, stuck on an island with the need to survive and no one to watch them or judge them, they have a brave and terrifying world spreading before them. It’s a little bit tragic, but also amazing to watch. These girls suddenly have to find out- or decide- who they really are, even if that means disappointing the family members they’re not entirely sure they’ll ever see again.

The resourcefulness never loses its edge of funny- like turning heels and bras into weapons or a prom dress into a desalinization process- but it’s never out of the blue. All the things they’ve been doing for years for the pageant circuit gradually find real-life applications. Most of these girls, virtually indistinguishable at the beginning of the book, grow into real, solid people. The dumb one is still too dumb to breathe but there’s something painfully sweet about her and the revelations that unfold about her history. The anti-pageant still rages at the slightest provocation but she also learns that wanting to be pretty isn’t necessarily a sign of shallowness. The good girl learns that it’s okay to be a little wild.

As one of them very astutely points out, the boys in Lord of the Flies crash in the wildnerness and descend into savagery. The girls crash in the wilderness and find themselves to such a degree that ‘lost’ is only a physical description of location.

My favorite part actually sneaks its way through the entire book: I LOVE the footnotes. Seriously: footnotes. They’re scattered through the book, some fifty of them, and they’re almost always product pitches for The Corporation, the somewhat shadowy organization/network that seems to have pretty much taken over all of pop culture. The products are ridiculous and absurd and slightly frightening, and some of them come complete with commercial transcripts and ‘word from the sponsor’s. We also get sneak peeks at the girls’ information forms for the pageant and classified descriptions of things going on elsewhere that all come to a head near the end of the book (sneaky sneaky around the spoilers).

Librarians, you may end up taking parents to the mat over this one, but it’s worth it to get it included on the school shelves. There’s coarse language, there’s sex, there’s frank talk of anatomy, all the things that stoke the flames of battles over what is and is not acceptable in school libraries. But it’s amazing and totally worth the battles it might engender. As over-the-top as it frequently is, there are amazing things to learn from it, and frankly, they’re things I think teen girls could definitely use the reinforcement on. As funny as the book and the circumstances are, it’s ultimately empowering, not in an uber-feminist hate all men and prettifying cultture kind of way, but in a real, down to earth, this is a sensible way to live kind of way. The fact that we get that from beauty queens crashing on an island is a little terrifying but it’s true. These girls learn that there’s more to life than being perfectly beautiful and universally adored and what everyone else wants them to be, but they also learn that it’s okay to have a beauty regimen as long as it stays within reasonable boundaries. And it’s not a bad book to put in boys’ hands either. At first they’ll just sit back and laugh at how stupid so many of the girls are and act, but substance creeps in so subtly they might not even notice it until they’ve already had their eyes opened.

Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray, the reason I spent most of an afternoon giggling myself breathless. Definitely check this one out!

Until next time~

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