Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
(Disclaimer: We got this book on the recommendation of Ms. Brown, who had been reading it with one of her senior classes. It’s definitely meant for an older audience, and I wouldn’t really recommend it for Grade 7s and 8s. If someone had said that to me about a book when I was in Grade 7 or 8, it would have basically guaranteed that I would read the book, and I know that a few of you may do just that. Just read the review carefully, so that you know what to expect.)
Beauty Queens is a weird, satirical hybrid of Lord of the Flies, Lost, and any cheesy teen beauty pageant you can think of. It is complete and utter fiction, and you just have to go with it. The narration, which is in the 3rd person omniscient, switches focus between 4 or 5 of the main characters, but it doesn’t get too confusing. The story sometimes switches to another setting, but I can’t say too much about that without giving away an important part of the story. Mixed in with the narrative are pageant-related fact sheets for each of the main girls, and a number of “A Word From Your Sponsor” sections, which is where much of the satire can be found.
The plot is interesting and takes enough turns that it’s not as predictable as I first thought it would be. The book is a solid 390 pages, so it could drag, but Bray’s writing style is different enough that I read this in 1 or 2 sittings; I’m sure the mixing up of perspectives added to the interest level, as the featured characters are all quite different, and there isn’t a chance for the narrative to get stale.
The characters themselves are difficult to describe in a quick review. They are all pageant contestants, but they don’t fit into the stereotypes you might have in your head thanks to Toddlers and Tiaras. The contestants all have different motivations for their participation in the pageant, and their reactions to the plane crash that landed them on the island (oh yeah — there was a plane crash) are just as different. I felt at times that Bray pushed too hard to have these capital-D “Different” characters, and wasn’t sure if I was supposed to learn a lesson from each. I did like the characters, but it felt, at times, like there was a politically-correct checklist being followed to ensure that various races, religions and other factors (which I’ll get to) were represented. I have no problem with that at all, but found that Bray really emphasized it at times. However, if she was trying to get the island to represent a microcosm of the world, then I understand what she was doing.
Bray also made sure that a number of different realities concerning sexual identity and gender identity are represented. Again, I think it’s really important that these realities are represented in YA fiction, but it just seemed as though Bray was trying to cover all of the bases. It did add interest to the characters and the story, but it just seemed like the odds were a bit unrealistic. Also, some of the issues were, in my opinion, a bit overblown; when you read the parts about the Wild Girl, you might understand.
One thing I really liked was the message that girls don’t always have to be pretty, or co-operative, or “tame”. It’s sad that it takes a deserted island for the girls in the story (some of them) to figure this out, but it does get a lot of time in the book, and it was good to see that focus. With all of their challenges and differences, the girls work together as a team, without losing sight of themselves as individuals — or, in the case of some girls, gaining sight of themselves for the first time.
The book worked for me, but like I said, I think it’s meant for older teenage readers. There’s a fair bit of violence, some sexual content (not much, but some) and a level of satire that might be missed. With that being said, it’s still an interesting story, and I don’t want to stop anyone from reading a story that interests them. Give Beauty Queens a shot if you’re looking for a book that’s not like a lot of the YA fiction out there.