Kaboom! (Review: “Beauty Queens”)

For the first time in weeks, I have a non-ACNM book review to post. I am a frequent reader of Forever Young Adult (FYA), a fabulous find via my college friend Sarah wherein I can hear about great and not-so-great YA books without having to read them. As a bonus, it is run by YA lovers who are actually older than I am, so I don’t have to feel like I’m the only mid-twenties creeper in the teen section at the library and Barnes & Noble. FYA has had a book club in Austin for quite some time, but it meets when I work. I didn’t have to work at meeting time this past Sunday, so I decided to grab the book (Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray) and go.

My reading experience was definitely marred by the breakneck pace I employed while reading. I bought the book on Thursday using a gift card from when I switched cable providers, and I dove in that day. I’ve never read a Libba Bray book before, but I had some idea of what I was getting into since her last book was about a teenage boy suffering from the human version of mad cow disease who hangs out with a dwarf and a fairy. The other members of the book club noted that Beauty Queens is not like Bray’s other novels, but I think I still got a decent sense of her style.

The bandolier actually has a couple dozen different shades of lipstick.

The premise of Beauty Queens is that a plane full of contestants for the Miss Teen Dream competition crashes on a deserted island, killing everyone except about a dozen contestants from as many states. What is a girl to do with a limited supply of water, no food, and almost no eyeliner? The problem is that every one has a secret, even the island itself. Beauty Queens is an over-the-top satire, which is evident from its omniscient narrator’s addressing the reader directly, the thinly veiled caricatures of boy bands and politicians, and the commercial breaks that come every few chapters. There’s nothing in this book that made me want to reread it or recommend it, but I did throw back my head and laugh a few times. In FYA terms, I might give this book my BFF charm, but I would never wear my half, and I’d be okay with that.

(Here be spoilers.)

The suspension of disbelief required to enjoy Beauty Queens is immense. I appreciated, though, that Bray acknowledged that by reminding us that Miss New Mexico still had a tray stuck in her forehead and by not revealing her name for a good reason. I missed a few of the satires (even J.T. Woodland, and that was staring me in the face), which is normal for me, but I managed to call the arrival of the Captains Bodacious 4 cast just before they appeared. I definitely expected them to come with secret TV cameras, though (and I was half right). Of course the two brown girls become BFFs; clearly they couldn’t just coexist. Of course the non-heterosexual girls hook up, because clearly no one can resist a hookup. Of course Adina meets a boy who challenges her hard-line feminism. I think I would have enjoyed this book more if it hadn’t fit so closely into desert island/political thriller stereotypes. There was so little original humor and so many, many pages (nearly 400 in the hardcover). I also maintain that it dates the book to this specific historical moment, and not in a quaint Pride and Prejudice way.

Although Bray’s beauty queens were generally all hilarious, I liked some of the major ones much more than others. I got tired of Adina’s heavy-handed feminism. I didn’t want her to be so thoroughly used by Duff, but I didn’t like her, either. Neither Nicole nor Shanti offered any new perspectives on the misunderstood minority. Mary Lou’s story confused me; I thought it might become a paranormal romance parody, but she was really just a caricature of purity ring-wearers, which I found somewhat insulting. (I hate that waiting until marriage is somehow not an acceptable choice.) I liked that, even if Taylor was a witch, she was committed to something. That something was a beauty pageant, but she was in it until the bitter end. I also found her turn toward the insane fascinating. She reminded me of Hamlet. She was definitely unhinged, but she was smart enough to prepare and execute Plan B during the final showdown. Perhaps the Mind’s Flower darts just gave her the release from the pageant mentality she wanted all along.

Regarding the FYA book club, it was good to discuss a book with other people in person for a change. I haven’t done that since I left teaching. The loud, liberal opinions of some of the other participants reminded me that I definitely live in Austin, but I can’t stay in a like-minded bubble all the time. Reading Beauty Queens and discussing it was worthwhile at the very least because it pushed me out of my comfort zone. Just the same, I will be joining Goodreads’ book swap program and sending my (free) copy off to what is hopefully a home where it will be appreciated for more than its fantastic cover.

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[…] Queens, by Libba Bray: I did not like this book, but the cover is pretty fantastic. It’s hard to tell unless you see it in person, but each […]

[…] on a retreat all for myself. I attended my only meeting of the FYA Book Club so far, even though I didn’t like the book and eventually gave it away through Goodreads. I officially reached my first work anniversary ever […]

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