*WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*
Before we begin, let me just say this: I feel really bad about the review I’m going to write here. Normally, I don’t mind writing negative reviews – in fact, much for the same reason I always get a little thrill when someone trolls my reviews, I sort of enjoy doling out negative criticism (for the psychology behind this, please refer to Anton Ego’s monologue on criticism at the end of Ratatouille) Especially when it’s an author I dislike – I can and will trash Twilight until its memory is wiped from the earth, but things get complicated when it comes time to give a negative review of an author I like. Because, lest you get any other ideas, I love Libba Bray. I loved A Great and Terrible Beauty, I loved Going Bovine, and I think she personally is brilliant and funny and I would love to hang out with her and talk about books and history and James Bond all damn day.
But I try to base my reviewing style off the advice of Lester Bangs, which is that “you have to make your reputation on being honest…and unmerciful.” So. Honest and unmerciful. Here we go.
So, the basic plot: a plane carrying the fifty contestants of the Miss Teen Dream pageant crashes on an island, killing all but thirteen of the competitors. The girls have to figure out how to survive on their own and learn who they really are, while also questioning their own reasons for being in the pageant in the first place. Meanwhile, the mysterious Corporation, who controls the pageant along with everything else on TV, advertising, and possibly the whole country, is working on its own dastardly plot connected with the pageants. Also there are sexy pirates. (oh, don’t worry, I’ll get to them)
I don’t understand why there are so few negative reviews of this book. Before I read it, all I knew about it was from the many glowing reviews praising the book’s humor, its brilliant message, its terrific characters, etc. Maybe these people are seeing something I’m not. Maybe I’m a moron. But for whatever reason, here are the big problems I found with this book, boiled down to some key points:
-Regularly Spits In the Face of Logic. Not real-world logic, which is fine to disregard, but the logic that the world of the story has already established. There’s a part where two of the characters are talking about money they spend on pageants, and one girl is shocked when the other tells her how much the average pageant gown costs. Hang on – you’re in a pageant as the story takes place, and you don’t know how much pageant gowns cost? Buh?
Similarly, there are just too many coincidences to put up with. First a plane full of beauty queens crashes on a deserted island, conveniently killing off any adults or authority figures. But surprise! the island is also inhabited by a Corporation stronghold. And meanwhile, a sexy eco warrior is camped out on the island (I am not making any of that up). And then a boat carrying the sexy young cast of a pirate TV show crashes on the island, with at least one hot boy who is perfect for each of our main characters. Up until the very last page, I was waiting for Bray to reveal that the entire thing – the crash, the pirates, the comically-evil corporate villains – had all been staged from the beginning as the pilot for some awesome new reality TV show. But no. There was no staging. It all actually happened, and I don’t understand how or why.
-It’s Super Easy to Be in a Pageant, Apparently. Adina, our sort-of protagonist, is an aspiring journalist who’s only in the pageant so she can write a tell-all article about it. Fine, but this is a national pageant. How in the hell did she fake her way to getting the Miss New Hampshire crown, beating out hundreds of other girls who have been doing this for real since they were children? For god’s sake, at least Gracie Hart had the FBI rigging the competition so she could get to the Top Ten. And Adina’s not even the only one – another character does the pageant to make a social statement, and another one does it because she’s won everything else already. Jesus, from the way this book makes pageants sound, anybody can win a trophy with no experience or genuine effort!
-It’s All So Very, Very Satirical. This book is a satire, I get that. But the satire is all so broad, so winkingly obvious, that after the second “commercial break” I was tired of it. Bray goes for the obvious jokes and stereotypes (a religious, gun-loving Texan character? How innovative!) without delving deeper into who these girls are and why they do pageants (short answer, according to this book: either to make a social statement, or childhood trauma). All the satire is so heavy-handed that it practically bruises, and the story gets too bogged down in its own jokes. The book seems to be begging us to applaud its cleverness as it hits us with a barrage of made-up pop culture references and fake TV show titles and jokes that have no business being there at all, except to get another laugh out of us (the funniest line in the book, in fact, makes no sense in the context it’s delivered and is completely unnecessary)
-The Protagonist is the Wrong Girl. The character of Taylor starts out as the villain – a serious, religious pageant veteran who has total faith in the Miss Teen Dream philosophy and message. She seems like the bad guy, but when she finds out that the rescue has been called off and the girls have been abandoned, she snaps. We learn about her traumatic childhood, her need to be perfect and accepted and loved, and then Taylor goes full Rambo and starts living by herself in the jungle, taking out the bad guys one by one like a crazy ninja armed with hairspray. This story is awesome, but it has to take a backseat to all the other girls and the stupid, stupid pirate romance bullshit that really should have been left out completely.
-Femin…ish? I have a bad habit of analyzing things from a feminist viewpoint (I went to a women’s college, it’s part of my programming) when they don’t deserve to be analyzed that way. But Beauty Queens is set up as a modern feminist manifesto, railing against the pageant system and our standards of beauty and who girls are expected to be in today’s world…and it only works a little bit. Like the satirical elements, all the feminist messages are slammed in our faces with no subtly. Adina, our Token Empowered Girl, speaks in cliched feminist slogans like “I don’t need a man to define me” and the characters all have very obvious conversations about how much society sucks if you’re a girl. Heavy-handed doesn’t begin to describe it.
And at the same time, there’s an odd insistence on the importance of the girls’ love lives. First there’s the girl who sexes up the eco warrior, which I guess is fine because the chapter was really about her reclaiming her sexuality and not being afraid of her own desires, but then the hot pirates show up and it all goes to hell as various girls lose their damn minds over the sexy, sexy boys – even our Feminist Icon, Adina, is powerless when faced with sensitive bad boys who share some of her interests.
I could put up with all of that, if there was a legitimate reason for the pirates to be in the book. But I’ve thought about it, and I honestly cannot come up with a single compelling reason that they should have been included at all. They have almost no effect on the overall plot, and anything they do manage to accomplish could have easily been done by other characters. They served no purpose, and I wish they’d been cut out of the story entirely.
-What’s the Message, Again? It feels like Bray is trying to write two different books here. On the one hand, we have a campy, outrageous pageant caper with maniacal villains, outrageous escapes, and general balls-out hilarity; and then we have a serious social statement about girls today and who society wants them to be. There are some very good ideas in this book – it’s inspired, in part, by Lord of the Flies and discusses (when it’s not throwing out pop culture jokes and romance subplots) the idea that girls need an island of their own, where they don’t have to worry about being who everyone else wants them to be and discover who they really are. But it doesn’t mesh with the silly, campy mood that defines the rest of the book. How can we take these girls’ opinions about societal pressures seriously when the villains have a secret lair in a volcano with a self-destruct system that can be overridden by making a Powerpoint presentation (again, not making this up). To use a tired expression, Bray is trying to have her cake and eat it too, and the result is a jumbled mess of a book that can’t decide where it’s going or what it wants to be. (sort of like the girls in the story – hey, maybe the whole format is an allegory! Well, you think of a better explanation)
Verdict: one out of five stars