Madeline's Reviews > Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
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Sep 26, 11

bookshelves: kids-and-young-adult, ugh
Read in September, 2011

** spoiler alert ** 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)
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Reading Progress

09/24/2011 page 120
31.0% "Hoo boy. This isn't turning out at all like I expected it to. Bray has 270 pages to turn this shit around."
09/25/2011 page 250
64.0% "A boatload of actors from a pirate TV show just crashed on the island, and the hot fake pirates are ALREADY pairing off with our fearless protagonists. I feel that the pro-feminism message of the book is rapidly slipping away here."
09/25/2011 page 300
77.0% "For the love of GOD, Bray, please stop writing "Adina snarked" after everything she says. WE GET THAT SHE IS SNARKY, JUST WRITE "ADINA SAID.""
09/26/2011 page 390
100.0% "The presence of the hot pirates was not, as I dearly hoped, all staged for ratings. Sadly, this is the only way I would have been willing to excuse their presence in the story."

Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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message 1: by Samantha (new)

Samantha Oh God, I'm glad I read this review before I caved and bought it because of that awesome cover! (Sucker for marketing right here.)
One of my friends read it, and she thought it was a little patronizing, like Libba Bray does all of the thinking for the reader. Like they can't discover the satire and "hidden" lessons for themselves--she has to spell it out and eliminate the hard questions. Or that there is only one True Lesson that's uncomplicated and her answer is right, damn it! Did you think that too?


Madeline Or that there is only one True Lesson that's uncomplicated and her answer is right, damn it

I definitely agree with you about the unrelenting obviousness of the book - Bray did everything but highlight the significant passages and write next to them "THIS IS IMPORTANT SO PAY ATTENTION IMPRESSIONABLE TEENAGE GIRLS." I mean, maybe it's different to read this as a fourteen-year-old, when all these ideas that the book is presenting are brand new, but for me everything the characters were saying was way too familiar and blatant.

One thing I will give Bray credit for - at the end of the book, she tells us what the main characters all ended up doing with their lives. There's the expected stuff, like Adina becomes a journalist (seriously, though, is anyone in the real world doing the job they wanted as a high schooler?), and Miss Something is a lawmaker; but what's interesting is that some girls went on to get married and have kids (Shanti even married a man her parents chose for her). So no, I don't think the message is that there's only one right way to be a woman in the 21st century, but rather that girls need to take the time to figure themselves out and not worry about what society tells them they should be.


Marjorie Ingall DAYUM. Tough room.


message 4: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Woot! Queen Madeline strikes again. Show no mercy!


Nina Gayle I agree. A very illogical book even within its own world


Madeline I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks so. I remember one scene in particular at the end where all the girls have banded together and are using beauty supplies as improvised weapons, and they catch one of the bad guys and tie him up with duct tape and then, for some reason, use a Maxi pad to gag him.

I read that and was like, wait, what? I get that you want to continue the empowerment theme by having the girls take beauty products and turn them into weapons, but you just established that they have duct tape! Why can't they just use that?


message 7: by Michael (new)

Michael Foley Duct tape keeps a mouth closed, but a pad, sock, etc provides a muffled sound through which to yell. Plus, it can force the detainee to focus on breathing through ones nose which further inhibits the ability to cry for help. Basic Hostage Taking 101.


Jessica THANK YOU! You have perfectly summed up what I thought of this book. I seriously waited an entire year before caving in and buying it--and I was so disappointed and upset by this terrible novel that I almost cried. I was worried it might have been the build up I gave myself, going through other books first, etc. But it wasn't. It was just bad.


message 9: by Jane (new)

Jane I note that Beauty Queens made it onto ALA's Young Adult Library Services Association's 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults list. 'Books for ages 12-18' Did you ever think that you could be too old to be reading in this genre?


message 10: by Madeline (last edited Dec 05, 2012 10:57PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Madeline Whoa, judgmental much? I also read and loved The Diviners, as well as The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, which is a) Young Adult and b)voted best fiction book of 2012 by Time magazine. So obviously I'm not the only one outside the target age group who appreciates YA books. (Also I couldn't help noticing that according to your profile, you like all books "as long as they're well-written." So why are you getting snippy with me for reading YA?)


message 11: by Johara (new)

Johara Almogbel I've never heard of this book, but reading your review I'm kind of bummed it didn't turn out to be a network setting up a reality show after all. I'd so have read that if it was the case.


Madeline Right? It would have worked so well with the book's world of commercialism and artificiality, and have accounted for all the implausible coincidences in the story, like the sexy pirates showing up out of nowhere and the fact that the plane crash killed off any adults/authority figures(and the "commercial break" segments would have finally made sense, because the end would reveal that we were actually watching a TV show all along).
But I guess I can see why Bray decided to go with the, "no, it all really happened!" ending - all the self-discovery and personal revelations the girls had would have been kind of invalidated by the reveal that they were part of a faked scenario all along.


message 13: by Lina (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lina I totally agree. I love Libba! I've met her she is amazing, but this book is her weakest! The Diviners is a great return to form!!!!


Rita I tried SO hard to like this book, kept coming back to reviews to try to understand why they were so good, felt like an idiot most of the time.
But you just said it, I agree completely with you!


message 15: by Pam (new) - rated it 2 stars

Pam Wright Thank you- your review articulated everything I felt about this book!


message 16: by Dray (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dray Hi Madeline. I enjoy your reviews, even when they're unmerciful about books I loved. My only response, from my perspective as a high school teacher, is that perhaps teenagers might need the messages slammed into their heads a little bit. Not that they're dumb, at all, but rather that they haven't had the experiences we have and things like feminism may be a bit new to them. I know you addressed this in one of your comments above, but I am always shocked at how often my students just accept the messages given to them by the media and beauty industries and the like. So for that reason I can't wait to pimp this book out to them. Though I can't justify the pirates, either.


Madeline I agree, and I realize that I'm hardly Bray's target audience for this particular book and its messages. Looking back on her past works (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Going Bovine, The Diviners), she does tend to be very...obvious about the messages she wants her books to impart. There's nothing wrong with wanting to teach your readers something, but I wish she wouldn't be so heavy-handed about it, and had a little more faith in her readers' abilities to pick up on the subtle things. She needs to learn that a whisper is sometimes more effective than a shout.


message 18: by Katie (new) - rated it 1 star

Katie Christian You are my new hero! I wanted there to be something redeemable about this book, but I've yet to discover it. Thank you for your in-depth review of this shallow, half-assed book.


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