Book review: ‘The DUFF’ by Kody Keplinger

Bianca Piper has always basked in her camaraderie with Casey and Jessica, her gorgeous (and blonde) friends at Hamilton High. Maybe she’s a little on the larger side than they are, sure, and her hair doesn’t have that same sleek, flowing quality. Perhaps she’s a little bitter, a little jaded — but it’s not like she doesn’t have a reason to be, okay? Her mom is, like, not around. And her dad has tons of issues of his own. And if she finds solace in folding and re-folding clothes at the foot of her bed and indulging in a little daydreaming about Toby Tucker, a cute classmate, who’s to judge her?

Well, Wesley Rush, for one. Wesley — all womanizing, skeezy charm and disarming good looks. Curly dark hair; awesome body. Wanted by half the female population in Hamilton and already enjoyed by the other. Wesley . . . who informs Bianca — unprovoked, unsolicited — that in her group of friends? She’s the DUFF.

The designated ugly fat friend.

If life was coasting along for our narrator up until that point, Bianca’s world suddenly comes crashing down. Issues with self-esteem bubble up and pop, forcing an unstoppable stream of venom in Wesley’s direction. Because she hates him, you guys. Like, really, really hates him. Despises him. Thinks he is the worst.

Except, you  know, not so much.

Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF is a novel about a high school student that was . . . well, written by a high school student. And you know what? It reads that way. This is both good — mostly realistic dialogue; somewhat believable teen characters — and bad. Because I felt like I was reading the diary of . . . well, a teenager. Of myself. And in the parts that were actually tender, there was truth there.

After all sorts of off-handed comments on Twitter, I’m going to try and keep my snark here to a minimum. I didn’t hate this book and I sincerely don’t want to be a hater, but I’m not sure I understand the hype surrounding this title. Though entertaining, The DUFF lacked a little something I like to call nuance. Something for readers to glean between the lines, if you know what I mean. Puzzles for me to figure out. Behavior for me to decipher. Clues as to the bigger picture — a picture I didn’t want to the author to spell out for me in pain-staking detail.

As Bianca and Wesley’s “relationship” heats up — and that’s not a spoiler, friends, promise — I would have loved to actually sit down and try to figure out why our narrator was sleeping with someone she claims to loathe. Not all sexual encounters are motivated by love — I can respect that. But the sound of his voice makes her sick, Bianca says. She can’t stand to look at him. He makes her crazy. He’s disgusting.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

And Bianca tells us exactly what she’s doing while she’s doing it. She’s upset about her parents and the shaky status of their relationship. She’s lonely. She’s heartbroken following some break-up from years ago that’s, um, never really explored. She’s still smarting from Wesley’s “DUFF” comment.

And I would have enjoyed the novel so much more if Keplinger had let me reach just one of those conclusions myself.

Many readers have been concerned about the sexual content and language in this book. I understand the cussing issue — four-letter words do tend to fly in The DUFF, but I didn’t think they were placed just for shock value. Teens curse. It didn’t offend me, but if a well-placed F word isn’t your bag? Yes, this might be a problem here.

But as for the sex? Well . . . I’d say that’s a problem, too. The message running through Keplinger’s novel — a message that Bianca says herself on multiple occasions — is that she sleeps with Wesley in order to lose herself for just a few moments. To forget her worries, to stop thinking about her home life. To feel good and empowered. She’s using him, she asserts.

I’m not going to hop up on my soap box, friends, but let me say? Not a good thing to spout off to 16-year-olds, who don’t necessarily understand the physical and emotional complications of having an intimate relationship. Or an intimate relationship with someone they claim to not even enjoy being around when they are dressed. It’s dangerous. Aside from the obvious concerns about pregnancy, STDs and other health issues, that’s not healthy for your headspace. Bianca has major problems she needed to figure out while still wearing pants.

Okay, so I guess that was pretty soap-boxy. And ranty. But I had to say it.

Also? What’s with the major issue with Bianca’s dad that crops up about 200 pages into the book . . . and is quickly swept under the rug with a few hastily-added sentences about how the problem will be resolved? (Sorry for being so vague; don’t want to spoil anything.)

This isn’t a terrible novel. I read it over the course of a few days, simultaneously shaking my head and quickly turning the page. It’s an easy read, and a fast read — and Bianca is, for the most part, a likable character. I didn’t find her particularly funny, witty or charming (more like angry, rude and stand-offish), but I could see where she was coming from. I empathized with her. And while her “banter” with Wesley often seemed forced and weird, I still found Wesley to be a realistic teen guy.

And the overarching message of The DUFF — again, spelled out and completely in your face — is that at some point or other, y’all, we’re all The DUFF. If they’re genuine, friendships go beyond labels. We’re all attractive and have something meaningful to offer the world — and it’s not through anything superficial.

That message is more my speed.

Do I recommend this book? Surprisingly, yes. If you’re looking for a different narrator and a conversation starter with other book-loving friends, I think there are plenty of issues happening here to form a decent conversation. For parents of teens, though, I’d suggest giving it a read-through first. I’m definitely not Lady Censorship over here, but I don’t agree with some of the messages — intended or unintended — happening in this one.

And hey, I’ve been the DUFF. I know exactly what that feels like. I connected with the story’s message there, and I appreciated the atmosphere Keplinger was trying to create.

It just didn’t work for me.

(I should also note that I’m in the minority. Beyond garnering many positive reviews on LibraryThing and Goodreads, many friends have enjoyed it! Check out a positive review from Steph Su Reads, which prompted me to buy the book myself. And one from Persnickety Snark, which corroborated many of my feelings.)


2.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0316084239 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

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19 thoughts on “Book review: ‘The DUFF’ by Kody Keplinger

  1. In my review, I put at the top that I think this is TRULY a young adult book, not a book for young or middle teens, but a book for 17-24 year olds, what young adult should truly be. She is a senior in high school, and I think that is about the age that should start reading it – girls who are about to go to college and have a lot more freedom with what they do.

    I personally took one message as being in charge of your body and doing what you want to do with it. It is HER choice and she never does anything because she feels pressure from him, which I think is great. She even draws a line at something she is uncomfortable doing (and he readily accepts it). And they are always safe.

    i think these are things that 17 year olds, and many 16 year olds, can learn from. Is escaping from your problems a good thing? No, not really, but we all need to do it or we drown, and she was drowning.

    I really think how she impacted Wesley was a great aspect too. He wasn’t as bad as she imagined and I think she saw that earlier, but wouldn’t admit it because she didn’t want those feelings to start.

    I really enjoyed your look at the book though and appreciate that it was very different than mine!

    • I definitely agree, Caitie — this is a book is better suited for young adults, not teens! And you’re also right that Bianca never allows Wesley to pressure her into doing anything she doesn’t want to do. That’s very important and powerful!

  2. heheh, you were a LOT nicer than I imagine I would be if I ever read this. However, the premise of it sounds absolutely awful to me, and from the several excerpts read out in the panels at BEA, the writing sounded clunky and horrible, definitely a lot of telling and no showing, lots of shock-value stuff, and just not well nuanced, as you put it. If the premise hadn’t put me off, the writing would have made this a no-touch book for me. I can’t give it a rating as I haven’t actually read it, but I can say this is one I have no intentions of ever coming near.

  3. I haven’t read this book yet, I’ve really been on the fence about it. I just wanted to let you know that this is a fantastic review. I’m still not sure if I’ll read it or not. Only time will tell I guess.

  4. I’ll start with the caveat that I haven’t yet read The DUFF though it is on my to-read list. But I think it’s good that you didn’t like the book as much as others – it’s supposed to be that way. Not every book will appeal to every reader, so I think it’s refreshing to have a variety of opinions available to people.

    I will say I definitely agree with your point that the message about Bianca sleeping with Wesley just to “lose herself” is not the greatest lesson to impart to teens. Regardless of whether people think this books is good or bad, I’m not wild about implying that you can have sex without consequences (good or bad), when that’s rarely the case.

    • Hmm I am not sure if I agree with this. It is pretty easy to have sex without consequences. I have friends that do it all the time. I think it is ridiculous that our society tells everyone that sex always has consequences and you should be terrified of them. IF you know yourself and use protection, it is a fun thing to experience.

      • As an adult, yes — I think sex without consequences (when careful, etc.) is possible. And sex isn’t anything to be terrified about. But as a 17-year-old, I think it’s a different story. Not all the time, but most of the time! 🙂 I think you hit the nail on the head there, Caitie — if you know yourself, you can make your own decisions. And hopefully feel good about them.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’ve only read really glowing reviews of it so it’s nice to read a review that points out some of the negative parts of it. I’ll probably end up picking it up at some point but it’s nice to know some of the things to expect. I also can’t stand when everything is just TOLD to me rather than letting me make those conclusions.

  6. So far, I’ve only seen a lot of reviews that say “omg, omg, I loved this book” so your review is refreshing. It’s funny, no matter how many times people summarize the plot in their reviews, I don’t have a clear understanding of what it’s actually about! I also heard that the first draft of the book was written in 2 weeks! As a writer, this made me 1. jealous that someone could crank out a novel in such a short amount of time and 2. extremely skeptical 🙂 This may account for the teenage journal feel. It sounds like an entertaining read. Hey, I like cursing and sex without consequences, sounds like fun. But I still haven’t been inspired to read it…

    • Two weeks?! In my mind, that would definitely contribute to the journal-like feel — and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The story did flow well.

      And that makes me really jealous, too. 🙂

  7. I’ve been on the fence about this one too. I went on a big YA tear earlier this year and got kind of burnt out after reading too may of those Uglies/Pretties books. I have a feeling I will end up reading this at some point though.

  8. I enjoyed this review! Thanks, Meg!

    I think part of the reason this book was highly praised is that Keplinger was 16 or 17 when she wrote it? She was truly the voice of a young adult.

    With that being said, I enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s the greatest book but I enjoyed the different take on your usual YA lit.

  9. I haven’t read this one yet, but because of all of the hype surrounding it I ordered a copy for my library. I’m so thankful that I read your review, which really compelled me to read it myself (always the best practice, I know) before just popping it out on the shelf for the kiddos. Thanks for an interesting review!

  10. I think when the time comes to post my own review, I’ll just give a link to yours, because you said all I wanted to say, just the perfect way! 😛

    I guess you pretty much know how I feel about this one since we discussed it a little on Goodreads already, but yes, the issue I mentioned to you then is the one about her father. And that really, REALLY annoyed me. It would be huge in anyone’s life, and a “sorry” wouldn’t just swept the issue away.

    And the message about sex is so wrong, too, as you so well mentioned from the top of your soap box. The book’s message shouldn’t be “love yourself as you are”, it should also be, “sex is not to be taken lightly”. As I read it, I kept thinking of Artichoke’s Heart, but honestly, the two don’t compare.

  11. Awesome review Meg…Like many commenters above, I think its refreshing to read your opinion. I love the sound of this book from the summary and I’ve seen only positive reviews, so I’m glad after reading this review, I’ll be able to go into reading it with a clear mind and be able to form my own opinion, hopefully.

    Crazy that it was written in two weeks though! I didn’t know that was possible! Geez.

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