Well, I was hoping this adorable YA novel by Julie Murphy would be a nice comfort read after my mom’s death. As it turns out, not so much.
The main character, Willowdean, is an overweight girl living in a small town in Texas where people only care about two things: football and beauty pageants.
Willowdean’s mom was a beauty pageant queen who won’t admit out loud that she’s ashamed of her fat daughter, but she totally is. It took me longer to getting around to reading this book than I had thought, which meant I knew before I started reading that Jennifer Aniston played the mom in the Netflix original movie, and then I kept picturing her in the role while I was reading the book and I got even more excited because I knew she would be perfect in that role (spoiler alert: she was perfect in that role).
The not-so-comforting part of this book for me came from the fact that, six months before the story starts, Willowdean’s aunt Lucy had died, so grief is a subplot throughout the book, and when I realized that, I knew I was screwed. I finished reading it anyway and I still enjoyed it.
Aunt Lucy weighed a few hundred pounds, was on disability, and died of a heart attack in front of the TV when no one else was home. Willowdean’s mom was also a heavy kid, but managed to lose the excess weight just in time for high school – then she got pregnant by someone passing through, never saw him again, and now she’s working as a nurse in the local nursing home. Willowdean says she spends her days “wiping old people’s butts,” which is true, but as someone who worked in a nursing home for a couple years, I didn’t appreciate Willowdean’s derogatory attitude. Nursing school is no joke, and when she’s old and infirm, she’ll need someone to wipe her butt, so don’t disrespect nurses. They work hard do necessary tasks for not enough money, so STFU.
Six months after Lucy’s death, Willowdean’s mom decides it’s time to throw out her dead sister’s stuff so she can use her room to make alterations to the contestants’ dresses and use that to bring in some more money. Willowdean’s understandably upset by this because she wants to keep all her aunt’s things. That’s a legit way to grieve, but throwing out the dead person’s stuff is also a legit way to grieve. The movie turned this into a moment towards the end where Willowdean’s mom regrets giving all her sister’s stuff away, but I’m not OK with that. Different people grieve differently and I didn’t appreciate the movie making it seem like Willowdean’s mom didn’t love her sister or wasn’t grieving her, just because she didn’t want to keep all her stuff.
That issue aside, I really liked the book and the movie overall. While going through some of her aunt’s papers, Willowdean finds a beauty pageant application that Lucy had started to fill out and then abandoned. She gets to thinking about all the things her aunt wanted to do, but wouldn’t because she let her weight get in her own way, so Willowdean decides to apply to be in the pageant in her aunt’s honor. Not only does her (gorgeous) best friend, Ellen, decide to join with her, but so do a few of the other girls in school who don’t look the way magazines tell young girls they should look. Willowdean is not thrilled about being “the Joan of Arc of fat girls,” but she’s really not thrilled about Ellen joining, since Ellen is the kind of girl who could actually win the pageant for real, and so her joining steals Willowdean’s thunder.
So they stop being friends for a while, Ellen starts hanging out with the equally gorgeous girls who work in the same clothing store where she works, and Willowdean starts hanging out with the other unconventional pageant applicants, which is good, because Willowdean hadn’t actually thought about what it would mean to join the pageant beyond just signing up and facing her mom. Fortunately for her, one of her new friends, Millie (who is heavier than Willowdean), has always wanted to be in the pageant, has studied previous pageants, and gives them all tips and training.
Meanwhile, Willowdean has started making out with a really hot guy she works with, but they never define their relationship, so Willowdean is super self-conscious that he’s secretly laughing at her behind her back or something. Even when he makes it clear that he wants to be her boyfriend, she has a hard time accepting it and she turns him down because she doesn’t want to be the reason everyone laughs at them and wonders what a boy like him could possibly see in a girl like her. So, despite her determination to be brave and live the kind of life Lucy would have wanted, Willowdean ends up letting her body hold her back by sabotaging her relationship with her would-be boyfriend. Don’t worry, they make up at the very end.
Not only does Willowdean not win the pageant, but she gets disqualified for changing her talent at the last second instead of doing her pre-approved talent. She had a hard time coming up with a talent, but given how much she loved Dollie Parton, I was always like, “Isn’t it obvious what her talent should be?” But she doesn’t figure it out until right before the pageant so she has to suffer the consequences. On the bright side, she does make up with Ellen, and Millie gets third place, so it’s all good. Willowdean sort of gets to a place with her mom that is almost OK in the book. By the end of the movie, her mom completely realizes how amazing she is, which I liked better (also it’s more cinematic).
Despite reading this at a time when my family and I are trying to sort through my mom’s things, I’m still glad I read it and the movie is super cute.
What did you read this week? Anything else that hit home in a way you weren’t expecting?