The Good: What I’m fast appreciating about Libba Bray is that she’s always doing something different as an author; but, each time, it’s awesome. It’s like she’s the Meryl Streep of authors. Without the accents. Wait, Gemma Doyle was British so I guess maybe that counts? Anyway, so far Bray has given us a historical fiction lush with fantasy; a road trip that explores life, death, and spirituality; and now a satire about commercialism, beauty, and modern priorities and pirates. What’s next, westerns? (Actually, I know the answer is the Roaring Twenties. But still.)
Here’s the short pitch: America’s Next Top Models plus Lost multiplied by Arrested Development.
There will be quoting. Because Bray’s writing is humorous and biting and insightful, and because the best way to know if you’ll like her style is, well, by reading it. There is a plane crash, but don’t worry! The book begins, “A Word From Your Sponsor. This book begins with a plane crash. We do not want you to worry about this. . . . But there are survivors. You see? Already it’s a happy tale. They are all beauty queen contestants. . . . Such a happy story. And shiny, too. This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better (TM).” Now you know: an arch tone, slightly over the top, and from the start satire about consumerism and the companies that convince is that if we just buy that terrific button down white shirt, our lives will be better. (They won’t? But I bought the shirt already!)
The crash happens in the prologue (“the pilots and copilot, whose names are not important to our tale, are trading stories with each other“) and Chapter One stars with Adina Greenberg (Miss New Hampshire) opening her eyes. Adina is a journalist and she, like us, at first views her fellow dozen-odd survivors as simply pageant girls: “the waving goddess stood outlined by the smoking metal wing as if she were a model in a showroom of plane wreckage. She was tall and tanned, her long blond hair framing her gorgeous face in messy waves. Her teeth were dazzling white.” “I want to pursue a career in the exciting world of weight-management broadcast journalism. And help kids not have cancer and stuff.” “They were both artificially tanned and beach-blond, with the same expertly layered long hair.”
As Beauty Queen progresses, the teenagers turn out to be more than Adina thinks. Taylor (Miss Texas) may eat, breathe, and drink the pageants, but she is also a leader, an organizer, and has some very interesting military skills thanks to her her general father. When days pass with no hope of rescue, it is Taylor who digs up a grub because “it’s packed with protein. My daddy says his unit had to survive on these for a whole month once.” And then — to cement her leadership status — Taylor gets Adina to be the first person to eat a grub. Shanti (Miss California) turns out to have written her junior thesis on “micro forming and sustainable agriculture. I could come up with some plans for planting a garden and constructing an irrigation system. And I know how to make a system for drinking water.” It’s like Gilligans Island, with the teens each a mixture of Ginger and the Professor.
Bray shares with us what Taylor, Adina, Shanti and the other contestants are thinking: their fears, their motivations, what being in the pageant and succeeding means to them. The reader, the other contestants, and the young women themselves begin to see themselves, and each other, as more than the “nice, happy, shining, patriotic girls” the pageant showcases. What is terrific about Beauty Queens is that it does so with respect and without trashing the contestants. It trashes the pageant system, yes. Beauty Queen‘s satire also targets commercialism and the way things are sold, reality TV, and overuse of PowerPoint.
I adore this type of humor; but like rich chocolate, for me it was best read over several days instead of all at once. And it’s a humor that masks some deeper issues and observations. The tag line to one of the commercials for breast implants? “Breast in Show. Because “you’re perfect just the way you are” is what your guidance counselor says. And she’s an alcoholic.” It’s not all deep — there is also this very serious warning about dolls: “But you should not put anything on a pedestal, least of all dolls who watch you while you sleep, waiting to suck the breath from your lungs.”
And I still haven’t talked about how Beauty Queens is also about ambition, and friendship, and what happens when a bunch of reality TV pirate hunks show up, and sex and sexuality and race and gummi bears.
Because it’s Libba Bray. Because beauty queens are so much more than pretty faces. Because there are footnotes. Because there is romance. Because there is happy ever after, and hopeful ever after, and happiness isn’t about being all coupled up. Beauty Queens is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.