“Beauty Queens” by Libba Bray

Title: Beauty Queens
Author: Libba Bray
Read Date: 1 July to 12 August 2011
Goodreads Status Updates: Click here.
Review in a nutshell: Awesome and original premise, flawed execution.
Warning: I wouldn’t personally recommended this to very young teens. Maybe 16 years old and up, or do you think I’m just being conservative? 😛
Special Award: Most Number of Footnotes I’ve Ever Seen In a Fiction Book, beating Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and The Amulet of Samarkand by a glittering mile.  Hell, even the acknowledgments have footnotes.

Publisher’s Synopsis: The fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream pageant thought this was going to be a fun trip to the beach, where they could parade in their state-appropriate costumes and compete in front of the cameras. But sadly, their airplane had another idea crashing on a desert island and leaving the survivors stranded with little food, little water, and practically no eyeliner.

What’s a beauty queen to do? Continue to practice for the talent portion of the program–or wrestle snakes to the ground? Get a perfect tan–or learn to run wild? And what should happen when the sexy pirates show up?

I like Libba Bray’s humor, I really do—she’s witty, she’s snarky, and she writes a mean satire. But Beauty Queens is just too over the top for my tastes. And to think I was actually expecting it to be over the top based on how she approached her previous book, Going Bovine (which I liked)!

This book uses an almighty in-world entity called The Corporation as a framing device for the main Plane Crash Survivors story. The Corporation allegedly edited the account of the crash to ensure that it’s appropriate for everyone’s consumption, and took to censoring curse words and inserting footnotes and commercial breaks into the story to promote its various products, TV shows, and celebrities.

It’s actually an interesting device, which allows Bray to inject much of her aforementioned wit and snark into the main story. But there’s something about it that’s just a little bit iffy on the logical implications, especially when we read about a character’s innermost thoughts. (Just how did The Corporation know all of that?) *shrug. maybe that’s just me.*

Anyway, I liked the footnotes and whatnots in the beginning—they were hilarious—but halfway into the book, they just became very tiresome. They interrupted the flow of the story most of the time, and just when there was something good happening in the plot too. There was one too many of those footnotes and crazy products when a handful could have just as easily driven the point home.

ACME doesn’t stand a chance against The Corporation’s products!

I can’t help feeling that the treatment for Beauty Queens would have worked better if there was a multimedia aspect to it. Maybe they could’ve created a micro-site with a catalogue for all the products mentioned in the book, with video archives of commercials, and even MP3 downloads of Boyz Will Be Boyz songs. With that, it wouldn’t have been necessary to put so much extra stuff in the book, and it would’ve helped readers to focus more on the main story rather than the world. But then again, I guess that would’ve pandered to the consumerism that the book was mocking in the first place. Oh well.

Or maybe a glossary or insert of the product catalogues at the end of the book would’ve worked instead of the descriptions being tacked on to every other page as footnotes?

Okay okay, I’ll stop proposing solutions to this book’s problems and get on with the commentary. 😛

Beauty Queens has this under-edited feel to it, as if somebody needed to make another pass at it and correct typos and maybe slash off some of the sections that didn’t move the plot forward or didn’t involve character development. There were some boring sections and sections that didn’t make sense at all, like the pirates!

Oh, man, the pirates. Were they there just to drive home more of that “reality TV is ridiculous” point (taken! and from the very beginning, too, sans pirates.) Maybe to put some romance into the story? (Well, there was that ornithologist already, and the LGBTQ aspect.) Maybe so one of the girls can complain that they should not have to serve the men? (Noble but predictable, and it would’ve been easier to just leave the boys out because the ladies can survive by sheer girl power.) Or maybe it’s just because getting stranded on an island wouldn’t be complete without pirates? But all it achieved, at least to me, is to tell the readers to their faces that True Love Knows No Gender and Please Practice Safe Sex. Oh, and that in another universe, pirates actually love Justin Timberlake. *cough cough*

See, I appreciate that Bray probably wanted to impart some life lessons through the story, and that’s okay. She did that at the end of The Sweet Far Thing, too, but that was WAY more subtle than the “I’m not gonna get it on with you if you don’t use a condom” scene in Beauty Queens.

Thank you for dropping that anvil on my head, Libba.

With all these issues being addressed and with all the characters and the Corporation stuff, I feel like the book ended up being too “everything but the kitchen sink.” It’s as if Bray had way too much fun writing in everything she can think of and nobody thought to put the brakes on it.

Speaking of the characters, while there were some standouts (Adina, Taylor, Jennifer, Petra,) the others bled into each other a lot. It didn’t help that the girls often referred to each other as “Miss New Hampshire”, “Miss New Mexico,” etc. At some point, I entertained the idea of making a cheat sheet just to keep track of which girl was which. (To put things into context: I never made a cheat sheet for Harry Potter.) After a while, though, I just didn’t care anymore. I wanted them all to make it out alive, and I even genuinely rooted for some of them, but I didn’t feel any real fondness for or attachment to them.

I think one of the reasons for this is some of the characters were just too surreal and the setting and framing device fluff made them even more so. And for the record, MoMo B. ChaCha, the eccentric dictator of some obscure republic, has got to be the most cartoonish character I’ve come across in recent memory. And that includes actual cartoon characters.

Actual cartoon character. Beep beep!

Yes, I know this is a satire, and I’ve already accepted that Bray likely wrote everything the way she did intentionally, but that doesn’t mean I have to like all of it.

Despite the things I didn’t like, I still recommend that you read the book if you can manage it. Bray can bring on the snark like no one else can, and she actually has great comedic timing when she’s not pushing things too far. She’s an innovative writer who has a unique way with words, and it really shows in this book. I did like the overall plot arc, premise, and general idea of Beauty Queens. I know some readers and critics really enjoyed the book and reveled in the things I didn’t like, so I’m disappointed that I couldn’t make myself love the execution more. It’s fun and brilliant, yes; it just tired me out. Maybe your experience will be different from mine. And maybe I can try the audiobook sometime; I heard it’s more entertaining.

This is a polarizing book, I think, and you wouldn’t know in which end of the spectrum you’re likely to end up unless you read it. If you’re not a fan of Bray’s writing in the first place, however, this is going to be a tough hurdle.

One final point: I think this book will be more effective and will be more powerful for readers who are immersed in or who have knowledge of American or pop culture. Otherwise, some of the jokes and references will just go over the reader’s head. I’m skeptical about the book’s appeal to a global audience, so it’ll be interesting to hear from a more diverse group of readers. I could be wrong, of course, so if you’ve read it, do leave a comment. ;p


2 thoughts on ““Beauty Queens” by Libba Bray

  1. Cristina Gutierrez says:

    Great review. Omgosh. Please tell me you made up that about a pirate liking Justin Timberlake?! I have seen this around and it looked fun. I love pirates so they would work well for me….well maybe. LOL. Thanks for the awesome review on a book I have my eye on. It was fun reading it.

    • Meann says:

      Thanks so much for the kind comments. 🙂

      As for Justin… let’s just say that since this is a satire, it’s not exactly him but a character that sort of parallels him… yeah, the pirates like him. There’s a huge twist about that, but… yeah. o_O

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