Whoa, where do I start on Libba Bray's "Beauty Queens"? I haven't had a book completely blindside me as far as content goes for quite some time. I'm clearly at a loss for words as I write this review, because 1. I'm trying not to hold my sides from laughing so much at this book, and 2. I don't quite know how to explain "Beauty Queens" appeal when it has so many elements in it that work, but theoretically shouldn't. That might sound odd, but I'll explain it as I go into further detail.
I went into this novel with one idea of what it would be about, but was completely surprised when it turned several measures on its head and ran with them. There were times when I thought "Oh no, Bray did not just go there," and pretty much in the scheme of events, Bray's response was "Yes, I did go there, and I'll take it one step further." A word of warning: this novel tackles satire and dark humor alongside addressing diversity, commercialism (very heavy amount of commercialism), sexuality, feminism/gender roles, among other measures. I firmly believe that this book will not be a one size fits all in terms of how it comes across.
And yet I loved, no, adored this book. It made me laugh for a good portion of the read. There were some things I had to swallow with a huge spoon of sugar, but I think Bray's work had a lot of heart behind it. Not so much on the developmental side as much as it was on the "off-the-cuff", eye to stereotyping that seems to poke fun at itself whenever it can. And yet it had many important things to say about being true to who you are and not giving into the mixed messages that are sold to you in society - that's what I came out of it with and I do appreciate that Bray chose to tell this tale the way she told it. Heck, I didn't know Bray had a background in marketing, and with the commercial incorporation in this book, I thought the way she delivered them were brilliant. The footnotes were a fun add as well (and this was one of the times I would say they were done very well in fiction).
The long and short of what this book is about is this: a group of teen beauty queens from the United States crash land on a deserted island and are left to fend for and among themselves. Some of them make it, some of them don't, but this novel is about the ones that do. You'd think this would be slightly depressing, but it has this cheerful snark that doesn't hesitate to punch where it can.
There's a fair helping of characters here that are somewhat stereotypical. Token confident Texas girl (who pulls a Rena* a good way into the novel), token dim-witted beauty, token minorities, token girl with a disability, etc. Technically, token characters would have me on my toes to protest and rage, but the sharp humor they put across somehow endeared me to them. I gradually got to know them as more than their purported portrayals, even if there were certain places where the novel developed them and became a little sluggish in the process. The humor was very self aware, and Bray doesn't hesitate to turn certain troupes on their heads and come across with them in ways you'd least expect. There are quite a bit of characters to keep up with, but surprisingly I got to know each of them. What made the backbone of this novel was the way they interacted with each other to survive and while I wouldn't say the changes within them were necessarily deep, detailed or profound, they were noteworthy and showcased a clear growth from where they were in the beginning of the novel.
The girls are all a part of the pageant for their own reasons, some even having quite a bit of secrets to hide, but the reveals are fun, and ultimately as the novel goes forward, there are a number of colorful characters that the girls come across that even add to the enjoyment of the novel. I actually ended up enjoying the pirates with the hot abs, even. =P
In the end, this was a fun novel that I enjoyed immensely for my first read from Bray, and I would not hesitate to re-read it again. I recommend it for those who want a funny story with some strong witty commentary about contemporary society, female empowerment, and just a very different read from the typical YA spectrum.
Overall score: 4/5
*Note: Rena is a character from the anime series Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni. If you have ever seen that series, you would kind of know what I'm talking about. :P