By Libba Bray
Yesterday I said
I may or may not also review some of the works that made it onto the (Tiptree) Honor Lists and the Long Lists; the limiting factors are time, my puckish whimsy, and whether or not anyone sees fit to sponsor those reviews.
It turns out another factor is “James wrote this review before deciding to do the Tiptree Reviews and does not care to sit on it for a year.” Also, puckish whimsy!
It’s completely unfair to the books I review but … I must admit that how favourably I react to a book can depend a lot on the circumstances in which I encounter it. Case in point: Libba Bray’s 2011 novel Beauty Queens.
The novel opens with fifty contestants plus ancillary personnel on their way to the Miss Dream Teen beauty contest. Fear not that you will have to keep a bewildering array of names straight: the plane crashes on page three. Of the fifty contestants, thirteen  survive. Of their chaperons and other support personnel, none survive. A baker’s dozen of contestants are lost on a deserted island, far from help, left to their own devices, with only the wreckage of the plane and the skills they brought with them to help them survive.
Did I say “deserted island”? Make that “seemingly deserted island.”
The Miss Dream Teen contest and the Corporation behind it would prefer that the contestants (and women everywhere) think of themselves as defined by their physical attractiveness; this would promote the sale of vast quantities of supposedly beauty-enhancing products. Each of the survivors (and presumably the dead girls as well) has her own reasons for appearing to adhere to the Corporation’s ideals, In fact, none of them, not even the ones who actually buy into what the Corporation is selling, are as limited as the Corporation would like them to believe. This is convenient for the reader, as a novel about thirteen teens starving to death would be distressing. It is also convenient for the teens, as actually starving to death would be even more distressing.
Life on the island is not just survival and feminist consciousness-raising; the real problem facing the surviving girls isn’t the fact that they are marooned or that the Corporation gave up the search for them suspiciously quickly . The real issue is that the island the girls are marooned on is a volcanic island and as Jane Austen once said, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a desert island in possession of an extinct volcano, must be in want of a villain’s secret lair.”
The villain in this case is the Corporation itself, who, as much as they would like to perpetuate the patriarchy through the medium of the Miss Teen Dream contest, are even more determined to ensure none of the contestants reveal what the Corporation has hidden on the island.
The context: the first time I read this was towards the bottom of a stack of books I read for the Tiptree Award. I don’t know how much I can say about the actual process of judging that award before getting a stern glare from 2011 Chair Lynn Thomas — but I think I can say that, as rich as the Tiptree candidates were in terms of lyrical writing, incisive observation, and consciousness-raising prose, my capacity for laughter was not often called upon as I read my stack of books. Any farce, even one as bitterly sarcastic as this one, was a welcome relief.
In addition to making the 2011 Tiptree Honor List, Beauty Queens also was a 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist in Young Adult Literature, won the 2012 Audie Award Winner for Best Narration by the Author and got a 2012 Audie Award Nomination for Best Teen Audiobook.
Rereading this book didn’t quite deliver the magic of my first reading (lacking the same context), but I still enjoyed it … for the most part. I could have lived without the comic crazy Third-World dictator, a character who is pretty much the only stereotype not subverted  in the course of the story. And the slut shaming the main villain is blackmailed with at the end.
Each of the main characters is at first presented as a stereotype, which stereotype is then carefully dismantled . Not all of them get the same amount of attention (three of them get so little I cannot for the life of me work out their names). The ones we see invariably turn out to have more to them than indicated in the elevator pitches they concocted to enter the contest. This cannot be surprising, given the constrained ideal of femininity the Corporation is selling and the larger society is supporting.
Taylor, who believed in the Corporation ideals wholeheartedly, takes the betrayal very, very personally. Hard on her but much harder on the Corporation mooks who encounter her after her sudden epiphany.
Readers like me will enjoy the incredibly snarky commentary from the omniscient narrator that is interspersed between episodes of character development. The narrator seems to support the Corporation’s message, in a clueless, hilarious manner that only further undermines the “you are your appearance” propaganda.
This was surprisingly funny for an American novel. The humor, however, is in no way subtle. I presume this because it is aimed at younger readers who might not catch an understated message (the same basic reason English teachers use Charles Dickens to illustrate foreshadowing and poisonously antisemitic stereotypes of the Victorian age). Also, there are a lot of adults who would miss anything short of a direct didactic assault.
Bray is also not especially concerned with plausibility, preferring to embrace the rule of funny and whatever keeps the plot moving forward at top speed. Oddly, the only aspect of the unrealistic elements that bothered me was the girl who spends the novel with a dinner tray stuck through her head.
The book was also pretty inclusive. Unsurprisingly, given that it was put out by a major American publisher, neither Shanti (the Indian contestant) nor Nicole (the African American contestant) made the cover ; the girl on the cover is almost certainly Taylor.
I suppose it’s too much to hope for a miniseries or movie adaptation, although I think that this could be the basis of a great show. Taylor’s rampage would seem a natural for the silver screen .
Beauty Queens is available from Scholastic.
1: Adina, Mary Lou, Taylor, Tiara, Brittani, Shanti, Jennifer, Petra, Nicole, Sosie, and the three whose given names I couldn’t find. Although I remember two of them had the same name.
2: To be fair, I should note that the Corporation balance sheet for the contest was already shaky; a full scale search would definitely put it into the red.
3: Even Agent Jones, the Hard Bitten Agent Who Does What Needs to Be Done, turns out to be more than he appears. Aside from the dictator, the one person who never manages to be more than the loser he first appears is the ambitious scion of one of America’s more inbred lines of bluebloods. Well, there’s not a lot of nuance to the main villain, either. But aside from that …
4: Who spent a certain fraction of the book as rivals due to the contest’s unspoken rule that only Caucasians can win and while there will be one non-Caucasian runner up to show the contest is inclusive, there will only be one.
5: I am kidding myself when I imagine a faithful adaptation, aren’t I? It would only end up being a teensploitation movie about thirteen helpless blondes who are rescued by a boatload of hunky pirates on the run for crimes they didn’t commit.