I have come to the conclusion that Libba Bray is brilliant, but completely insane. (Or maybe brilliantly insane?)
Have you ever wondered what you’d get if you mixed Lord of the Flies with the Miss America pageant, tossed in some James Bond, and slathered it all with a huge helping of satire on pop culture? No? Me, either. But, thankfully, blessedly, Libba Bray did, and Beauty Queens is the result.
The top 20 girls for the Miss Teen Dream pageant were all on a plane headed toward the pageant finals when the plane crashed. On a deserted island. Killing everyone except a handful of girls. What are they — girls who are beauty queens, presumably without any practical resources — to do?
From here, the plot goes all twisty and turny: the girls make their own camp on the beach and manage to not only get along (mostly), but thrive on their own merits as they wait to be rescued. However, things are not as pretty as they seem: there’s weird stuff lurking in that thar jungle, and those who go into it don’t always come out. And if they do, they’re not quite sane. There are also pirates (!), stupid trust fund guys, completely whacked-out dictators, and vengeful past beauty queens. This book truly has it all.
On the surface, the book is terribly shallow and stereotypical. Bray has lumped together every single cultural reference and stereotype she could think of in this book: in the top 20 finalists there are a lesbian, transgender, bisexual, stupid Southerner, aggressive Texan, Indian-American, and African-American. There’s a grand poking at everyone naming their kids Caitlin. Honestly: none of the characters is likable (I wanted to throttle Miss Texas! And Miss Mississippi just lived up to the low expectations I have of that state.), and the plot was fairly simplistic, which almost made it hard to get through. Thankfully, the hilarious footnotes help compensate for the simplistic plot.
But when you read it as a satire, the book is brilliant. In one of the most clever ideas I’ve seen of late, there are commercial breaks in the book, in which Bray lampoons every single kind of beauty product, movie and item that corporations try to sell to women. It helps one realize that, in the end, the book is not about the characters or even plot development, it’s about girl power: rising above the stereotypes and the product placement, and not only finding one’s true self, but acting on that, embracing the differences we have as women. (And no one woman is better than another.)
In fact, I think this would be a blast to deconstruct in a book group or English class; there’s so much meat under the shallow surface that the discussion could be quite fascinating.
And I’m sure she wrote it that way on purpose.
Rated: High for multiple f-bombs, somewhere between 10 and 15 instances, and one instance of teen sex (though quite tastefully written).