Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm sure my enjoyment of this book was colored by my agreement with many of its premises. In Beauty Queens, Libba Bray promotes several opinions about corporate entities, pop culture, advertising, and modern feminism that happen to line up pretty closely with my own. Perhaps the book is less enjoyable if you don't agree, but I quite liked it.
Beauty Queens starts by crash-landing the 50 contestants of the Miss Teen Dream pageant on an unknown island. The girls are initially optimistic about rescue, but The Corporation, the faceless entity behind most of American life in this book, has a hidden compound on the island they don't want anyone to know about. That means leaving the girls to die.
But the girls don't die. The ones who survive the plane crash prove remarkably resourceful. Just because they're only valued for their beauty doesn't make them useless, and as they shed their backstabbing rivalry to work toward survival, their true strength shows.
The book is told in third person omniscient, with a little time spent in each beauty queen's thoughts, as well as some of the other characters'. Normally, I dislike omniscient, but it worked for this story. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be in Adina's thoughts all book, and I fear that's who I would've been stuck with, otherwise.
Beauty Queens does suffer from some tokenism, but that's part of the point. The two POC (Indian and black) are there as tokens, and they know it. There's a deaf character, a gay one who also represents the lower class, a Jewish feminist, and a transgendered girl. (The book does an excellent job of always referring to her as a she, and the humor that arises from the situation isn't directed at her, but rather at the closed-mindedness of others.)
The girls all fit stereotypes about their states, but it's mostly by design. They refer constantly to what "the judges" expect of them, and it becomes clear that they've cultivated a safely stereotypical view to fit what the judges will expect of them. As I enjoy watching tropes get bent and broken, I loved it whenever we got a peek beyond the stereotypical exteriors of the girls.
The book contains a lot of biting satire. It covers a lot of topics, most notably: beauty pageants (especially those for young girls), reality TV, commercials, large corporations, the media, action movies (James Bond in particular), chick flicks, and Sarah Palin. It also refrained from condemning the girls for giving in to the culture they were steeped in, and from giving a blanket condemnation of things the girls liked. Mostly, this was accomplished by showing Adina wasn't right about all the things she loathed about the pageant and its trappings, and by showing she had a few things to learn, too. Adina started out thinking she was better than everyone else, but by the end, she learned she was lucky to count these girls as her friends.
Mostly, this is a book about identity, and how difficult it can be for a teenage girl to find it, among all the mixed messages inundating her daily. It's only after their secrets aren't important anymore that the girls let them go, and can finally find out who they are, besides one defining lie. It's a message I could've used as an angsty teenager, though I'm not sure I would've been ready to hear it.
I listened to this book on audio, narrated by the author. I recommend the experience. Libba Bray has a lovely voice, and she's up to the task of acting out several different voices and accents. No two characters sounded alike, though her British characters sounded Australian, to me. Also, I'd imagine the "commercial breaks" are more interesting with sound effects and music. The footnotes may take some getting used to, as they're marked with an alarm ding at the beginning and end. The audio edition also includes an interview with the author, though the questions aren't included.
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