The conventional wisdom is that "summer beach reads" are light, fluffy, easy-to-read novels you don't have to think too hard about while UV rays melt your brain cells. Purely based on the title and a first glimpse at the cover of Libba Bray's "Beauty Queens," I thought it would fit that category (even though that doesn't jibe with Libba's previous works). As someone who used to read Tolstoy on my summer breaks, I am pleased to report that I was wrong.
The story of a group of Miss Teen Dream contestants stranded on a supposedly deserted island after a plane crash is too rich with layers of meaning to be a super-easy speed-read. But it's too funny and uplifting not to pack next to your sun block and big straw hats.
The plot has been described as "Lord of the Flies" with pageant girls, which pretty much covers it, up until it actually becomes "Team America: World Police" with pageant girls. But what turns this into a totally unique story that you want to tell all your friends about isn't the premise, it's the characters. Without further ado, I'll introduce my faves:
Miss New Hampshire, Adina Greenberg: Hating everything Miss Teen Dream stands for, she entered the pageant in order to write an investigative report on it for her school paper. Because of this, she thinks she's smarter than the other girls. While she's a great character, I'm so glad she's not the only central character of the book, as lesser authors probably would have been tempted to make her.
Miss Texas, Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins: On the surface, she's the stereotypical beauty queen/mean girl. But she's also a badass with great leadership and firearm skills. This actually comes in handy.
Miss Rhode Island, Petra West: There's kind of a reason she can sing just like Boyz Will B Boyz singer J.T. Woodland, and it's not 'cause she's a superfan. That's also the reason she's desperate to find her meds after the crash.
The Narrator/Corporation: Every once in a while, the voice of "reason," an all-knowing representative of the patriarchal corporate powers that be, steps in to dissuade you from believing in the lessons in girl power and self-esteem the girls begin to learn on the island. Footnotes and commercial scripts are its best weapon.
Ladybird Hope: Former Miss Teen Dream turned Sarah Palin-esque presidential candidate. What more could you want from a villain? Well ...
MoMo B. ChaCha, President of the Republic of ChaCha: So, the island is actually where the Corporation is turning hair removal cream into a weapon of mass destruction to sell to this dictator. More important, this dictator is a short man who dresses like Elvis and whose best friend is a stuffed lemur named General Good Times.
And I'm leaving out so many other favorites—the so-far-from-stereotypical lesbian; deaf, blond, Indian and black pageant contestants; the "pirates" who come to "rescue" the girls; the disgruntled government agent—I can't even do them all justice here. Amazingly, the story is so much about the girls' self-discovery, it isn't until halfway through the book that Libba even bothers to add boys into the mix. By that point, the girls, too, feel like the opposite sex is a very nice but not entirely necessary addition to their new lives.
With so many stories to tell within one novel, and the interruptions of ad scripts, classified documents, the girls' pageant questionnaires and tons of footnotes explaining the pop-culture references of this alternate universe, this isn't a one-sitting read. You have to put it down, laugh about it, bug your friends with quotes from it, let it soak in, and then pick it up again. But hey, that gives you time to go for a swim between chapters.
Are you a Libba Bray fan? Have you had a chance to read "Beauty Queens" yet? Tell us in the comments and on Twitter!