I read Libba Bray's popular trilogy of books - A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing - about a group of magical girls attending a boarding school in Victorian England. I was a fan of her writing based on her past work and it seemed like a no-brainer to pick up her latest novel, Beauty Queens. However, I was greatly surprised by the change in tone, style and format that it seemed like I was reading a completely different author. This is certainly a satire in the nature of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, however it struck too many dissonant notes in order to be pleasing. The abundance of footnotes, commercial-like asides and pageant bio forms are jarring, and the profanity-laced vulgarity of the airhead dialogue sounds like chitter-chatter captured from a high school lavatory.
Bray is out to lambast popular culture from beauty ads to reality T.V. as she depicts the fate of beauty queens whose plane crashes on a deserted island. Her attempt to demonstrate the transformation of flighty, vapid girls into strong, resourceful women is a bit far-fetched. The characters are bratty, whiny and border on completely unlikable. In fact, they are caricatures of ethnic stereotypes. The straight-A Indian-American overachiever who is afraid to fail. The outspoken Jewish girl who is above it all. The flighty Southern belle who is intellectually challenged. The hard-charging Texan who is in it to win it. The Catholic school girl who is afraid of her sexuality. None of these portrayals are three-dimensional or show any type of interior depth. They float upon the surface of the narrative without laying down any substantial roots to form an authentic connection with the reader.
The profundity of snarky comments are thinly veiled references to numerous real life figures. J.T. Woodland (Justin Timberlake), a bandanna-wearing former boy band member who becomes a trans-gender Miss Teen Dream contestant. MoMo B. ChaCha (North Korea's Kim Jong-il), an insane dictator who is infatuated with American culture but at odds with the United States government. Ladybird Hope (Sarah Palin), the grand dame of beauty queens who wants to run for president.
It's too bad that some of the book's important messages tend to get lost in all this drivel. There is an insightful passage regarding the deaf contestant, Sosie, and how people with disabilities are held to a unfair standard by society. When the vius stole most of Sosie's hearing, it also stole her right to complain. She figured out early that nobody liked an angry disabled person. People wanted to think you were so okay with it all so they wouldn't have to expend any energy feeling guilty. There is a beautiful image about biology trumping beauty for the African-American Miss Colorado. Nicole took comfort in the clinical book. When you peeled back the skin, you were dealing with bone and muscle, blood and nerve endings. It was all the same.
Unfortunately, the plot spins so out of control it makes the storyline of Lost look sensible. Hunky pirates shipwreck on their beach resulting in the loss of one girl's virginity and another's high heels. Another contestant is swallowed by a man-eating snake only to be saved from its gullet. The team leader goes native after being struck by darts containing fluid from a hallucinogenic island plant. A man obsessed with hazelnut coffee and an entitled frat boy control the island via vats of an explosive facial hair product. Not to mention, the text abounds with awkward references to underarm hair, tampons and cringe-inducing lines like, "She may be a D-E-W-S-H, but it's not all her fault."
Overall, Beauty Queens falls way short of the crown.
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray is available for $18.99 at Amazon.com and at LibbaBray.com.
Review copy provided by the Amazon Vine program.
Congratulations to our winner: Kris S.!