Review of BEAUTY QUEENS by LIBBA BRAY
(review based on an advance reading copy)
The marketing for this book may have harmed more than helped its sales. Regardless of what we like to think, people do judge books by their covers and most people do not like this cover. I'm constantly trying to recommend BEAUTY QUEENS only to have people turn me down, convinced by the cover alone that it isn't for them. Also, I think a wittier title would have done more justice to the humor in these pages. I only open with this sidetrack in case you're one of those people looking at the cover and noting the title BEAUTY QUEENS and starting to dismiss this book without reading further.
My advice: read the first chapter. (Well, really more like the prologue, called “A Word from Your Sponsor.”) That's all it takes to realize this book isn't what one might initially assume. The provocative opening promises more depth (and hilarity) than any of the packaging suggests and, for that matter, the introduction is a good, quick measure of taste. If you don't like that opening you probably won't like the book, but if you're hooked, intrigued, curious, or falling off your seat from laughing so hard then you'll want to keep reading.
The characters definitely feel like types at the start, although that's fitting for this kind of satiric, tongue-in-cheek mockumentary style, so I’m not complaining. However, I did struggle keeping track of so many characters. There aren’t a full 50 (one for each state) since many die off in the original plane crash, but there are still plenty. Certain characters distinguish themselves distinctly and early on while others I could never keep straight. One in particular stepped forward at the end to play a greater role and I couldn’t remember who on earth she was.
I felt disappointed at first when the boys arrived (the sexy pirates mentioned in the book’s description). I always admire authors who can keep a story going, especially a YA story, without - or with minimal - romance drama. (Note: there still was some of that before the boys make their entrance.) However, Bray used these newest cast additions to work in some additional themes so well-handled that I set aside my initial annoyance.
These girls all harbor secrets. Bray slowly reveals their hidden shames one by one, so that we learn some early on and others much later. I valued the emotional impact far more than the suspense and the staggered revelations made waiting for the ones that hadn’t yet come much easier. Bray tackles some big issues with both insight and wit. These girls all have mental images of the ideal woman, who they’re trying to be, but none of them squeeze perfectly into that box.
Only Mary Lou’s huge secret bothered me. Well, rather how the material’s handled. The secret itself is a great addition full of possible feminist discussions. I’m going to tell you what the secret is now, so feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to know. To be blunt Mary Lou’s private shame is that she’s horny. She wants to have sex. She wants to initiate sex. She wants to be on top and be the more aggressive one. She wants to have casual sexual encounters and many of them. She wants to masturbate and run around naked. Next to none of this is stated so frankly. Mary Lou’s secret is referred to in a metaphorical sense, as a wildness repressed too tight and trying to burst free. My quibble here is that I feel this manner of handling the material distanced by metaphors and pretty phrasings might reinforce the same shame Mary Lou’s fighting. All the other girls’ problems are stated explicitly and talked about in clear terms. Mary Lou has struggled her whole life with being slut-shamed by people for both wanting and taking charge, told again and again that as a woman she must resist acting on certain impulses and should, in fact, stuff those impulses deep away. By discussing her particular secret (lust) in metaphorical terms, I felt like we were still tucking it away. I’m glad Bray included this particular mental burden, but I wished Mary Lou’s sexual desire and shame towards those feelings had been called out directly for what it is a bit more. Anytime people skirt around an issue that only adds to the existing negative connotations. I’m always an advocate of open discussion.
BEAUTY QUEENS’ biggest strength has to be the humor. I cracked up again and again and would have happily read a draft three times as thick if it retained the same quality. Yet the depth took me by surprise, for there is indeed more to this story than pure laughs. While the girls may seem like caricatures at first, designed solely for our own entertainment, they build into real people with their own pasts, problems, and philosophies. The epilogue felt a little too happily-ever-after for me, but it keeps the tone light. I can’t help wishing this were a series simply because I enjoyed it so much.