Libba Bray’s last novel, the award-winning Going Bovine, was heralded as a departure for the author, who had previously been best known for a trilogy of Victorian-era supernatural romances. Now, in Beauty Queens, Bray further pushes the boundaries in a work of social satire that skewers race, gender, standards of beauty and our hyper-saturated media culture. Oh, and did I mention that it’s also wicked funny?
When a plane carrying 50 contestants in the Miss Teen Dream pageant crash-lands on a (seemingly) deserted island, will it turn into Lord of the Flies? Or something else entirely? At first, the girls do split up into tribes—the Lost Girls and the Sparkle Ponies—but before long, they come to see their isolation as something of an opportunity. “There was something about the island that made the girls forget who they had been. . . . They were no longer performing. Waiting. Hoping. They were becoming. They were.” But what happens when these self-actualizing (and very, very fetching) young women encounter the hunky stars of reality TV’s “Captains Bodacious IV: Badder and More Bodaciouser”?
The surviving Miss Teen Dream contestants comprise a veritable United Nations of diversity—there’s the black girl, the Indian girl, the transgender contestant, the uptight virgin, the deaf one, the lesbian . . . but each girl’s remarkably distinctive voice and deeply personal backstory results in a narrative that’s equal parts compelling and crazy. Beauty Queens is pointed, riotous and unapologetically feminist, with each swerve toward preachiness cleverly counterbalanced with a hilarious barb or perfectly placed one-liner. “Do you think my new feminism make me look fat?” one character asks. Turns out, Bray shows us, feminism can look pretty darn hot after all.