“Beauty Queens” by Libba Bray

Sorry for my absence lately, folks. It’s been a busy time at uni, and then my mental health went down the drain, and fatigue is slowly destroying my ability to do anything other than stay in bed and doze intermittently, so reading has been a limited thing and reviewing even more limited.

BUT here I am. I’m alive. And today I read Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, which was recommended to me by Engie @ Musings From Neville’s Navel.

beauty queens

Beauty Queens tells the story of what happens when teenage beauty pageant contestants crash on a desert island and have to survive alone, without supervision — a girl-focused Lord of the Flies that shows how even apparently useless ‘talents’ can aid survival.

Previously, everything I knew about beauty pageants came from the film Miss Congeniality which, let’s be real, is an amazing film. This actually wasn’t dissimilar, in that it explores the idea of beauty pageant contestants in relation to feminist ideology and whether it’s possible to be that interested in your appearance without being shallow. It’s got some very funny moments, it’s got some cute romancey bits, and ultimately it’s about girls standing up for themselves and each other and learning not to apologise for their existence.

The book satirises how commercial beauty and sex are in our society, and while I think that’s a very valid point, I felt the satire element of the book was actually the least effective. The shadowy Corporation who seemed to rule everything were actually more of a distraction than anything else. I wasn’t interested in that part of the plot, and while the first few footnotes about Corporation ‘products’ were funny, I tired of them. (I was reading on Kindle, though, where footnotes are more of a pain — just bear that in mind.)

It’s difficult to write a book that makes profound and meaningful points while also being a humorous critique of society, and I think Beauty Queens struggles a little to walk that line as it rarely succeeded at both simultaneously. But it was meaningful, and emotional, and I feel very strongly about a lot of the characters. Even Taylor, Miss Texas, who seemed thoroughly unlikeable, had a profoundly moving backstory.

It’s a diverse novel. Some of the girls are queer. One of them’s transgender, and just to add more layers to that, used to be in a boy band called Boyz Will Be Boyz. One of them’s hearing impaired. One’s of Indian descent, another’s black. I appreciated that, and the way Bray dealt with prejudice within the pageant world and the beauty world (Western beauty standards, anyone?), and it definitely made the novel more interesting.

Plus it meant that when men unexpectedly turned up and romance happened, it didn’t immediately turn the book into a festival of heteronormativity, which is, y’know, always a bonus.

This isn’t about to rocket to the top of my list of favourite books, but it was a powerful read with some really interesting characters, and I’ll leave you with a handful of my favourite quotes so that you can decide whether you want to read it too.

It seemed odd to Sosie that she had to make some hard-and-fast decision about such an arbitrary, individual thing as attraction, like having to declare an orientation major: I am straight with a minor in gay.

(That’s just such an awesome way of putting it, right?)

You couldn’t be perfect enough to keep the world from betraying you.

No spoilers, but I have a LOT of feelings about this whole scene.

“Sinjin was sitting bare-chested with Petra’s blue feather boa wrapped around his neck and draped over his shoulder. His long dark curls had been teased and sprayed into a sexy mane. Heavy black eyeliner rimmed his eyes. “Am I not gorgeous? I want to snog myself. I’m like a postmodern Lord Byron.”
“You put the ironic in Byronic,” Petra quipped.
“Well said, luv.”

I just really like Byron. I think this scene would’ve passed me by, except BYRON.

“I’ve learned that feminism is for everybody and there’s nothing wrong with taking up space in the world, even if you have to fight for it a little bit, and that if you don’t feel like smiling or waving, that’s okay. You don’t have to, and you don’t have to say sorry. Mostly, I’ve learned that I don’t really care if you like these answers or not, because they’re the best, most honest ones I’ve got, and I just don’t feel like I can cheat myself enough to give you what you want me to say.”

And that last one is really the message of the book: that you only get one chance to be yourself, so stop listening to what the world tells you that you have to be.

I’m giving this book three stars. I think if I’d read it on a better day, when I wasn’t feeling so crappy, I might have given it four, and if I gave half-stars, maybe that would make me give it 3.5. But hey, ratings are horrendously subjective, so I’m giving it three. Bite me.

Rating: ***

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