Beauty Queens

beautySeptember was a very special month for the folks of Read It and Steep.  We met a week early, as voted in August by members so that I wouldn’t miss our meeting, and we met on the beautiful terrace at Tredyffrin Public Library.  It was such a beautiful night for it, I hope when the weather is good we can do it again.

In September, we read Libba Bray’s gem Beauty Queens.  If you’re not familiar with the book, you need to be.  Don’t let the cover fool you, this book is so much more than the tale of a group of teenage beauty queens who’s plane crashes on a desert island.  Originally, I listened to this book on CD when it was released.  I really enjoyed some of Bray’s previous works (specifically the Gemma Doyle trilogy), but there was no way I thought I was going to enjoy reading about a group of teenage beauty queens.  I’m no beauty queen myself and I don’t even have the luxury of having ever watched a pageant … unless Miss Congeniality counts.  The audio book turned out to be the very best I’ve ever listened to, due to Ms. Bray’s brilliant reading of her work, but more over I was in love with how complex the story became.

When I recommended Beauty Queens for Read It & Steep, I got a lot of the same initial responses/trepidations from my group members.  We also were really excited to hear what George (the only guy who consistently attends our meetings) would have to say.  Sadly, he was out of town and thought that our October book was our September title, so he didn’t get a chance to weigh in on Beauty Queens.  I hope he still reads it sometime, it would be great to know how he feels about it.

Despite it’s cover, Beauty Queens turns out to a powerful social commentary on America’s commercialism, as well as how we view young ladies.  One of our collective favorite studies in the novel comes from the characters of Nicole (the only African American pageant contest) and Shanti (the only contestant of Indian decent).  Nicole and Shanti worry about toeing the line between standing out for their cultural histories and being worried about being seen as “too ethnic.”  It was awesome to have Steepers Kassel and Shantha at this meeting, since they could speak to the issue better than the rest of us at the table that night.  Both felt that Bray does an impressive job of creating realistic women of color whom they could identify with.

The group agreed that what looks like it will be a silly pageant novel turns into something more akin to Hunger Games meets Miss Congeniality, with poisoned darts, sequined huts, and some hunky pirates to boot.  The characters are delightful (even when you can’t stand them … sometimes even because you can’t stand them) and detailed.  While there is certainly some caricature, you still get the feeling that the characters have fully realized depth.

We appreciated that the girls were varied and had truly unique personalities, motivations, and realistic worries. For instance, hearing impaired Sosie, who organized Helen-Kellerbration! a dance troupe for deaf kids.  Jennifer is a kid who got into pageants through a program to keep her out of a gang.  There are homosexual and transgendered characters who are written with so much truth and believability that you know that Miss Bray not only did her homework, but took the time to really get to understand what teenage girls from all walks of life think and feel.

One of the great enjoyments of this novel is the humor (sometimes quite ridiculous) that adds to what is truly a social commentary.  In response to the inane pop music and reality TV, Bray creates amusing amalgamations that are only slightly more crazy than real pop songs or reality TV shows.  A show where Amish girls on Rumspringa room with exotic dancers?  We’ve got a show about the Amish mob, so that’s not too much of a stretch.  N*Sync had a tune called Giddy Up so is the Boyz Will Be Boyz hit I Love You Like a Stalker too outrageous?  Of course, our personal favorite was Girl, Let Me Shave Your Legs Tonight.  To which, our Steeper Meghan exclaimed, “Please!  I’m tired of doing it myself.”

Other Great moments of our discussion included the claim that when boys and girls hit puberty that Lord of the Rings sets in … err, maybe it’s Lord of the Flies.  When the character Jennifer asks Sosie, “What’s the sign for asshole?” I excitedly raised my hand in the air and exclaimed, “I know it!  I know the sign for asshole!”  Which, of course, devolved the meeting into showing off the curse words that I know in American Sign Language.  Overall, the readers found Beauty Queens to be one of the best books for discussion that we’ve had so far.  It’s so complex that this barely skims the surface of our discussion or this great book.  Highly recommended by Read It & Steep!

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