Thursday, 23 September 2010

Review - The DUFF / Kody Keplinger

Seventeen-year-old Bianca Piper is cynical and loyal, and she doesn't think she's the prettiest of her friends by a long shot. She's also way too smart to fall for the charms of man-slut and slimy school hottie Wesley Rush. In fact, Bianca hates him. And when he nicknames her "Duffy," she throws her Coke in his face.

But things aren't so great at home right now. Desperate for a distraction, Bianca ends up kissing Wesley. And likes it. Eager for escape, she throws herself into a closeted enemies-with-benefits relationship with Wesley.

Until it all goes horribly awry. It turns out that Wesley isn't such a bad listener, and his life is pretty screwed up, too. Suddenly Bianca realizes with absolute horror that she's falling for the guy she thought she hated more than anyone.  Goodreads.

Review - To shoot from the hip - this book isn't deserving of the massive amounts of hype and praise it is heaped with.  Readers are so pleased that there is a book that addresses teen sexuality and body image that they are blind to the flaws in The DUFF.  And believe me, there are flaws.

This is not to say that The DUFF isn't a fun read.  It is.  It is fun, sexy and sometimes snarky but it isn't all that deep.  It does a great job is pushing forward a message of empowerment and a girl's lack of confidence but it doesn't walk the walk, it talks ....a lot but that's about it.  The characters say all the right things but there is very little happening beneath the surface.  It's all message and very little follow through.  And for that I am profoundly disappointed.

Bianca is a character that I can identify with greatly.  She's snarky, defensive and the mother hen of her clique.    When Wesley, a poor rich boy cliche, approaches her (as her clique's DUFF) she takes offence, dumps her cherry coke on him and thus propels their relationship forward.  It's from this point that Keplinger started to lose me as none of it rings true.  Bianca's snarkiness is just aggression, aggression that is depicted with heavy handed dialogue. Wesley doesn't speak like an authentic teen either.  Not one.  And I teach them for a living.  In fact, Wesley talks too much and too sensitively for readers to ever buy him as an unfeeling arse.  The two central characters voices fail to differentiate besides Bianca's too frequent threat to bodily harm the poor fellow.

As for the 'closeted-enemies-with-benefits' issue...I don't have a problem with a book that explores teen sexuality and their motives for seeking a physical relationship.  I understand that teens aren't always motivated by love, as does Keplinger.  But in focusing so much of Bianca and Wesley's sex life and fast forwarding (via off page-ville) their conversations and budding friendship leave the audience with a hollow connection.  A connection that is loosely tied.  A connection that seems built upon the cliche teen ideal of what a perfect set up for a teen romance should be -
  • hot make outs
  • snarky dialogue
  • boy defends protagonist's honour
  • boy professes his love
  • boy is indelibly hurt when protagonist rejects him
  • boy goes into wooing overdrive to win back protagonist's affections (which were never gone in the first place).
Seriously?  This isn't realistic.  The exploration of the label DUFF and the appearance of a strong yet vulnerable protagonist (who doesn't become a stunner to get the guy) is an admirable concept, fantastically suited to the YA market.  But Bianca is shallow.  She seeks a physical relationship with Wesley because he's hot.  And yet this hypocrisy doesn't seem to be an issue when the thud of the 'everyone is a DUFF' anvil smashes into the sidewalk.

Bianca is a character who is aggressive.  It is a method she has used to keep people are arm's length.  The DUFF's entire narrative arc is propelled by Bianca's incomprehensible need to get every facet of her life secret.  It's a facet of Keplinger's writing that keeps the reader at a distance - emotionally and logically.  The protagonist's emotional need to keep every aspect of her life compartmentalised and hidden presents itself in a clunky way to manufacture conflict where most was unnecessary.  The author needed Bianca to isolate herself, so she made it so, without adequate exploration of why.  On a surface level it was addressed but it came across poorly and impacted negatively against Bianca's intelligence. At the same time the audience is being hit over the head with Wesley's sensitivity.  If his words to Bianca didn't seal the Wesley is a nice guy aspect of the story then his actions and his sister's interjection (a complete WTF moment) threw him into completely unrealistic sugared waters of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory where kids can fly and

The sexual element is the aspect of The DUFF that is building the hype.  At a real stretch, a reader can buy into the concept that Bianca sleeps with Wesley as an attempt at gaining power but it isn't played as such.  Instead, Wesley is presented as a means to forgot, her drug of choice, if you will.  She sleeps with a guy that calls her the designated, ugly, fat girl.  A label that she dwells on continually and subsequently attacks him with a snog as a result.  She removes her clothes in front of him on a continual basis and the DUFF element never becomes an issue other than her feelings are hurt.  She takes his words to heart but it never impacts her physicality in front of him which doesn't work.  He judged her on a purely physical basis which made her vulnerable.  As a result she repeatedly puts herself in a situation where she literally bares all in front of his judgemental eyes?  How does that work?  And she trusts this guy that she's dismissed as an arse to keep the secret that they are hooking up...and he does?  The rationalism behind most of Bianca's decision making is tenuous at best, it seesaws between the heavy handed message of the novel and what the author wants to achieve on a plot level.  The two contradict one another on a too frequent basis.  The reason so many people object to the Bianca character isn't that she's sexually active or that she's aggressive, it is that she's never really crafted in a way that makes her consistently relatable, empathetic or even understandable.

In readers enthusiasm to find a snarky teen protagonist with a sex life, they've forgotten to look deeper into the novel. It is not to say that The DUFF doesn't have an empowering message about self-perception and body image but its importance is diminished by its flaws on a characterisation and plot level.  The DUFF is a fun read but it just isn't fully realised enough for me to fall under its spell.

Published: September 7, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown/Poppy
Source: purchased
Origin: USA


~The Book Pixie said...

I haven't read The DUFF yet but I see what you mean. Of course, I've never been in a relationship..... Anyway, I'll be sure to keep your review in mind whenever I read the book. Atleast I know what to expect. Thanks for the well written, honest review! :D


Mari - Escape In A Book said...

Another fine review, Adel. I admire your way of transforming your thoughts onto "paper".

I had high hopes for The Duff but I won't be surfing along to The Book Depository any time soon..

LinWash said...

I've heard a ton of hype for this book. Like the other posters, I appreciate your honest and thorough review. And you make a good argument about consistency in characterization.

Pam Pho said...

I had all these same problems. I ended up not reviewing it.

melissa @ 1lbr said...

So glad I read your review! I just posted a review of this on my blog today and I just didn't enjoy it much. I definitely didn't see as in depth into the problems with it as you did (which is why I'm so happy I saw it). But, I did find the message very heavy-handed. Thanks!

Carla said...


Audrey (holes In My brain) said...

great review adele! i'll admit, i was buying into the hype for a while, for all the wrong reasons too (i haven't read the book yet) but this review is one that reminds me not to just look at the surface snarkiness, but when reading, try and find the depth and motivations etc. thanks for the honest, intelligent review :)

June G said...

Wow. You really know your stuff. This is the first review I've seen that tells the honest truth and really cuts through the hype to tell it like it is.

One essential piece I felt the story lacked was Bianca's discomfort level with being fat. What real fat girl would so easily get naked with a super hot boy? Or any boy for that matter? Not many.

IMHO, the story would have had greater depth and interest if the issue of being fat and unattractive and still trying to connect with the hottie, had been explored.

Plus there was too much profanity. I actually found it distracting.

Thanks for the review. I am definitely following your reviews now and glad I discovered you. Keep on keeping it real.

Meg @ write meg! said...

Woo, another exploratory review! I completely agree with absolutely everything you've said. Wesley was just a rich-boy cliche, true, and I also agree that while I enjoyed reading the book, I seriously don't understand all the hype surrounding it. Eek.