This week’s Women in Fiction post comes from Dot Dannenberg. Dot is an extremely talented writer and an editor at 1:1000. Please check out her 1:1000 pieces on our contributors page here. You’d be remiss skipping the 10-part West series (just saying).
Dot’s post below is one of my favorite pieces about books this year, because it’s whip-smart in its observations about teenagers, body image and self-consciousness, and two of my favorite books this year (go read them, for real).
At first glance, the female protagonists of two of this year’s hottest YA novels couldn’t be more different, aside from their boy names. Will (Willowdean) Dickson, in Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’, is an overweight Texas high schooler who upends her small town by entering a local beauty pageant. Theo (Theodora) Cartwright, in Brandy Colbert’s Pointe, is a recovering anorexic ballerina forced to face her past when her best friend’s kidnapper is finally caught.
These two seventeen-year olds seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum in everything from race to BMI to the circumstances they face. In Pointe, the stakes are much higher than in Dumplin’–Theo’s unreliable narration swirls around the details of past and current loves while only skimming the surface of the darker things going on around her–sexual abuse, drugs, anger. Willowdean’s world is much softer. The darkest cloud in her life is her aunt, dead at thirty-five from obesity complications, who serves as both Willowdean’s guiding light and ghost of Christmas future.
I am not the target audience for young adult fiction starring seventeen-year-old girls. At times, I wanted both books to go deeper into the obsessive internal minds of these narrators, something I recall so clearly from adolescence, which is sadly missing from most YA fiction.
But I was impressed with how these two books about such different young women manage to capture a universal experience I do remember about being a teenage girl: when a boy wants to keep you a secret.
In Pointe, Theo entangles herself with a drug-dealing piano prodigy named Hosea. He understands her. He introduces her to feelings she didn’t know could exist. And, of course, he already has a girlfriend. Theo spends the book oscillating between refusing to be the secret and caving to Hosea’s advances, telling herself to have fun while it lasts–the rest of her life waiting to unravel in the wings.
I kept waiting for the reasoning behind Hosea’s secrecy to appear. Had he and his girlfriend been through some life-changing event? Was it about race, all along, because Theo is black?
But Colbert doesn’t take us there. Instead, we get the mundane truth of high school: high school boys don’t have real reasons. Hosea and his girlfriend have been together for two whole years, and at that age, longevity trumps everything, even self-actualization. Now that I read it, I see how accurate this is–how catastrophic the power-couple breakups at my high school tended to be. I remember the cutest boy at school holding my hand, then agonizing that his recently-dumped girlfriend of two years would be angry he was moving on so fast.
I even more directly relate to Willowdean in Dumplin’. Willowdean crushes hard on Bo, the cute boy she works with at a fast food restaurant. It’s clear from their banter that there’s a connection, but their romantic trysts always seem to take place in secret–behind dumpsters or parked near abandoned buildings. Willowdean almost can’t believe he’s into her, to such an extent that she doesn’t even tell her best girlfriend about her first kiss. And of course, in classic teenage boy style, Bo insists he can’t handle a relationship right now. Sure. That’s what they always say.
It’s taken me almost thirty years to re-write the narratives I told myself about growing up fat. The line I repeated–“boys just weren’t into me”–was a lie. Like Bo with Willowdean, boys were into me. They were just too ashamed to be the guy dating the fat girl. The internal battle between shame and longing rings clear and true in Dumplin’.
I wish I’d had books like Pointe and Dumplin’ when I was in high school. Watching Theo and Willowdean live through these experiences would have made me feel a little less crazy. I would have second-guessed myself less. And maybe I’d have learned a little sooner to speak up for the things I know I deserve.
Thanks for reading! What do you think of Theo and Willowdean?