Book Review: The DUFF, by Kody Keplinger

June 5, 2011 at 9:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Bianca Piper knows that her main job in her group of friends is to go along and make sure they don’t do anything stupid at parties. When you’re not someone guys flock to, that’s pretty much what you expect, so she knows to be suspicious when hot man-whore Wesley Rush starts talking to her in an effort to get in her friends’ pants. So she throws her drink in his face. But for Bianca, her home life is on the verge of imploding and she’s desperate for anything that can serve as a distraction. Re-enter one Wesley Rush. The whole enemies-with-benefits thing seems to be working out pretty well, until she learns that Wesley may not be such a bad guy after all, and she’s not the only one keeping secrets about a rotten home life. So what’s the DUFF to do when she might be falling?

I don’t usually read contemporary. It’s nothing against the genre, it’s just not normally my cup of tea. I like to escape in books, to fall into a world that is so clearly not my own. Contemp books generally put me back in high school, and while I won’t try to say my high school experience was staggeringly traumatizing, it’s not really something I’m keen to throw myself back into. This book, however, seemed criminal to miss, simply because of its name: DUFF. Designated. Ugly. Fat. Friend.

And being a member of the DUFF community, I had to give it a read. I am so glad I did.

Reading this book, being inside Bianca’s head, is seriously like sitting inside my brain during high school. The way she looks at things- the cynical, world-weary, prickly I’m so over this attitude that only seventeen-year-olds can manage felt so familiar, like I was just hitting the rewind button. Everything she does, every impulse she has, has a very solid root in what’s going on, never feels less than believable even when the action itself goes to extremes. She knows she’s not the prettiest of her friends, but that’s never particularly bothered her until suddenly it has a name. DUFF. And then she can’t get it out of her head.

The title, along with Wesley’s new favorite nickname of Duffy, is a complicated one. It’s a whip and a constant wound, a salting with every repetition, but there’s also a kind of freedom to it, as well as a sense of defeat. There can also be a rather savage joy in proving it wrong, because the nature of a DUFF is entirely based on perception.

I think every girl feels that way at least sometimes, that in any given group of friends, she’s the one the hot girls bring along to make them look better, or that she’s the one who can prevent trouble simply because no one’s going to think she’s worth causing trouble over. It gets us down, makes us mope, and maybe we take it too seriously, start to let it define us, but we all feel that way sometimes. There are plenty of teen books that highlight this or make it a character feature that the main character always feels like the ugly one, but it’s so much sharper here because it has a name. What makes it so interesting here, so captivating, is that despite the title of the book, the nature of a DUFF is only a springboard. It’s what launches us, but it isn’t really what the book’s about.

There’s a lot going on in thie book and, because we’re in Bianca’s head, we don’t get to see all of it. There are certainly pieces I wish I knew more about, like why Casey feels the need to protect everyone, and why Jessica is so desperate to be protected. I wish I knew more about Amy at all. But what we do see unfolds steadily and believably. Bianca’s loathing for Wesley rings true, even when she siezes on him as a chance for distraction. That he lets her also feels true. Finding that relief, that outlet, doesn’t instantly change anything between them. The way that relationship slowly alters, however, the rather more precarious ground they creep towards, also feels very real. It shifts before they realize it and they both deal with that realization in different ways.

I loved Bianca’s interactions with her parents. Sometimes awkward, sometimes blurring the line between parent and child, we very clearly see how Bianca is more of a product of both her parents than she realizes. Her mother runs away in a literal ssense of distance but Bianca runs away too when things get overwhelming. She runs to Wesley. And, like her father, she has an addictive personality that can make her spiral into places best not to be. By the time things come to a true breaking point, we’re waiting for it, waiting for the fragile, tenuous balance to come apart simply because it has to, because things can’t stand on that edge forever. I’m dancing around things a little here, but her father’s journey in particular is both compelling and convincing, as are Bianca’s reactions to it.

There’s never a point where this tries to moralize, never a point where it feels like part of a greater goal rather than a piece of a story. It doesn’t tie everything up neatly- though we’re certainly left with hope for how things will continue to develop, we’re left with hope, not a guarantee. Our characters are very human and they have a lot of things going on- there’s still a lot of room for them to screw up again, and no one’s trying to pretend that high school is forever.

This book is painfully funny, not just in the sense of the cutting, cynical humor that Bianca shares with us, but genuinely painful at points where it rings a little too true. We’re seriously back in high school for this, with all the casual, unthinking insults that wound far more than anyone realizes. We say things, we make assumptions and judgments, we believe rumor more than we should, and it all adds up to a carelessness that leaves life-long scars. What’s refreshing is that Bianca is as guilty of it as anyone and comes to realize that.

There are so many other things I want to talk about, but I don’t want to rob you of watching them unfold. That progression is so much of what I love about this book. Being seventeen, being in senior year, it’s a bizarre time where everything’s changing, so much so that we don’t always realize it’s changed and we wonder why the things that have been comfortable and familiar for so long suddenly feel different. Our friendships change, our perceptions change, our families change, everything trembling on the verge of flying apart except that some things, when the fly apart, come together in a stronger way. A more frightening way, sometimes, but stronger and better. More true.

So I’m going to shut up now because I really don’t want to spoil this book for you, but if you have ever felt like the DUFF, read this book.

Until next time~

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