Thursday, 18 August 2011
Review: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
By: Scholastic Press
The fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream Pageant thought this was going to be a fun trip to the beach, where they could parade in their state-appropriate costumes and compete in front of the cameras. But sadly, their airplane had another idea, crashing on a desert island and leaving the survivors stranded with little food, little water, and practically no eyeliner.
What's a beauty queen to do? Continue to practice for the talent portion of the program - or wrestle snakes to the ground? Get a perfect tan - or learn to run wild? And what should happen when the sexy pirates show op?
Welcome to the heart of non-exfoliated darkness. Your tour guide? None other than Libba Bray, the hilarious, sensational, Printz Award-winning author of A Great and Terrible Beauty and Going Bovine. The result is a novel that will make you laugh, make you think, and make you never look at beauty the same way again.
This is a very difficult book for me to review as my feelings about it are so contradictory. On the one hand, Beauty Queens contains some of my favourite things that I've read all year. On the other hand, there were things that didn't work for me at all.
Trying to describe the plot is nigh on impossible and probably sounds like I'm joking. Yes, there are several Miss Teen Dream contestants trying to survive on a remote island, but there is so much more going on - and all of it is insane. Unbeknownst to the girls, there is a secret compound on the island, where rogue agents are making weapons disguised as beauty products. This is being overseen by Ladybird Hope, a former beauty pageant contestant turned politician with designs on the White House. She's making backhanded deals with the, uh, eccentric dictator, MoMo B. ChaCha, a man who enjoys Elvis, killing people and discussing policy with his right-hand, a stuffed lemur called General Good Times.
As you can probably tell from all that, this novel is a parody, a spoof, a send-up. Libba Bray is lampooning everything from capitalism to sexism to politics to the purity movement to reality television to the beauty industry to...too many things to name.
And I'll start with what I liked about it. Well, what I loved was the writing. The POV alternates between 8 of the girls on the island and each of them is given a backstory to shed light on their character. I adored these parts of the book; some are amusing, some are heart-breakingly sad and all are beautifully written. My favourite was the passage on Mary Lou (Miss Nebraska) who grew up being told by her mother that she was a 'cursed, wild girl' and feels that she needs to stamp on her sexuality. It reads like a fairytale.
Of the 8 main characters, I honestly liked them all and felt they were fully fleshed out; each with their own strengths and flaws. How the girls become friends, work together and use their unique feminine skills to help each other survive was one of the strongest feminist messages I've read in a good long while and I defy any female reader not to nod along in recognition at the conversations and heart-to-hearts they share.
So that was the good. The not-quite-for-me element of Beauty Queens was the satire - a lot of it was too obvious and too broad. The text is constantly interrupted with footnotes and advertisements that parody familiar ones from our world and while some of these are funny, there's far too much of them. Sometimes it felt like there just had to be one at regular intervals, whether it fit organically into the story or not. I understand that this could also be mocking the way advertising is stuffed into our modern lives, but it is just as annoying in a book as it is in life and always took me out of the story.
It feels silly to complain about things that were over-the-top in a novel where clearly, the whole point was to be over-the-top. But a lot of it was too silly for me; it just comes down to personal taste. To me, the humour was hit-and-miss, but then the jokes are so constant that it means I was chuckling at least half the time. I think a reader who enjoys crazy, out there humour would get everything they ever wanted in Beauty Queens. And then some.
I'd recommend this book strongly to, shock of all shocks, young teenage girls. You know, the people YA is actually written for? I think that the messages in this book would give great food-for-thought to a teen just starting to question the world and the wacky humour makes it fun instead of preachy. I'll happily make a present of it to my younger relatives - and re-read those wonderfully-written passages again when I do.
Rating: 3.5 stars