After a crash sends a plane full of beauty pageant contestants onto a desert island, the teen girls aboard begin to take inventory of what has survived. A few renegade hair appliances and makeup? Check. Only about a dozen girls from the original fifty competing? Also check, unfortunately. And anything else?
Just drama. You can’t kill drama off.
The young women vying for the title of Miss Teen Dream must put aside their competitive natures and band together to survive, and the results are often funny — or sad. Each teen carries her own set of worries, insecurities and issues, and most have something to hide. Led by the indefatigable Taylor, Miss Texas, we journey across the island with the girls as they uncover shady dealings and terrible plots, and we’re left picking up the wreckage. Literally.
Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens is a tongue-in-cheek, witty and over-the-top exploration of so many themes, it’s hard to nail them all down in a single paragraph. We have feminism, sexism, racism; we have GLBT issues, equality and the idea of achieving an impossible standard of beauty. We also deal with sex as a means for self-esteem and low self-esteem that stems from unrealistic expectations. But despite the bevy of Big Issues happening here, Bray managed to draw me into a fast-paced story and get me invested in characters I wasn’t sure I would like.
Everyone has an idea of what a “beauty queen” looks like, acts like, sounds like. We’ve seen the clips of young women getting tongue-tied and embarrassing themselves with bad answers, and there’s some sadistic pleasure we might take in their failure. It’s as if to say, “No, you can’t have it all, chickadee. You can’t be smart and beautiful. You can’t be witty and sexy. Take your pick.”
Bray teaches us to ignore that impulse, of course, and peek behind the sparkly evening gowns (so to speak). My favorite Teen Dreamer was Adina, Miss Massachusetts, and I have an inkling that Bray herself is most like this contestant. Snarky and skeptical, Adina has a chip on her shoulder and something to prove — like everyone there, of course. Whether they’re trying to mollify an overeager stage parent, prove their worth beyond the perfect arch of an eyebrow or earn money for college, every woman is clawing for the title. But they start to realize there’s more to life than a beauty-based championship.
Beauty Queens is rife with pop culture references and allusions to contemporary events, and the event’s mastermind Ladybird Hope is a power-hungry manipulator who seems to channel Sarah Palin. These references felt a bit “Where’s Waldo?” to me; I was constantly trying to spot them. But they didn’t distract from an otherwise colorful story.
Was the book campy, dramatic and borderline ridiculous? Yes. Implausible and pretty unrealistic, too. But Bray, a masterful writer, knows this — and there’s a huge difference between wanting a book to be tongue-in-cheek and just having it be silly. The dramatic plot revelations kept me on my toes, and I was able to sink back and enjoy the story for what it was: a deadpan look at society and femininity, all told through the lens of unique and multifaceted women. The sheer amount of characters was overwhelming, but I did feel like I got to know most of them well.
A thought-provoking read that I finished quickly, though not one I’d recommend to everyone. Though Beauty Queens tackles heavy ideas with a lighter touch, the heaviness does remain. And though I wasn’t thrilled with the cheesy epilogue, I appreciated that Bray tied up loose ends for us. A worthwhile book for summer and teen readers, especially, who might appreciate realistic heroines preaching the good word of Just Be Yourself.
4 out of 5!