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I finished this book a few hours ago, and all I can say is that I feel really conflicted. Because on the one hand, I appreciate where Keplinger was going with this. But on the other hand, I’m not so sure she made it there.

Out one night with her two (much prettier) best friends, Bianca is informed by her high school’s resident hottie that she’s the DUFF – that’s Designated Ugly Fat Friend, for those of you (who, like me) hadn’t previously heard that term. She’s floored. She’s so upset. How could that jerk say something like that to her? But then she starts thinking about it. Her friends are a lot cuter than she is. Maybe the jerk had a point. And it starts eating away at her until she can’t handle it anymore.

As if her slowly disintegrating self esteem wasn’t bad enough, Bianca’s home life starts to decline as well. She doesn’t want to share her family’s personal business with her friends, even though she knows they would support her, so she flings herself into the bed of the one person she hates most – Wesley Rush, aka that jerk who called her the DUFF. Being with Wesley makes her mind go gloriously blank. She doesn’t have to think about whether she’s the ugly one, or about how her mom is never home, or about how every day her dad is teetering closer and closer to falling off the wagon. But their secret relationship also makes her feel awful about herself, because what kind of person sleeps with a guy they despise, a guy who openly calls them a DUFF?

The DUFF explores some really important themes for teenage girls:

• Bianca’s family life, for one, was a nice touch. Bianca initially seeks out Wesley’s companionship because her ex-boyfriend is in town and she doesn’t want to think about how he crushed her heart. But the reason she keeps going back is the continued escape from what’s going on at home. Her absentee mother and her father’s drinking problem are understandable reasons for wanting to stay as far from home as possible. The only problem I had with this is, for a mother who’s known for not being home, Bianca sure sees her a lot. And as for the father who is supposedly falling off the wagon, the issue is barely addressed before everything is okay again. Good idea, poor execution.

• Bianca considers herself a feminist. I thought this was great… at first. Then I realized that Bianca thinks that feminists aren’t allowed to think boys are cute, or to get dressed up, or be boys. (Yes, she sort of makes fun of a guy for being a feminist. Mature. And totally missing the point.) Also, for a feminist, she sure gets judgey about what other girls are doing, frequently referring to them as whores and sluts. Her misguided idea of feminism is, unfortunately, all too common for teenage girls. I can’t tell whether the author was being true to life or if she really believes that feminism is all about priding oneself on rejecting traditionally girly things. Again, good idea, poor execution.

• Speaking of labeling girls as sluts and whores, it’s near the end of the book that Bianca hears some negative talk about a girl who’s supposedly pregnant. She realizes that it could be her in that position (though she and Wesley have always used two forms of birth control) and feels bad for the girl. She tells the girl, who is crying in the bathroom between classes, not to worry about what other people are calling her, because nobody’s perfect and everybody’s done something wrong. This eventually leads to Bianca putting the brakes on the physical side of her relationship with Wesley. It’s around this same time that Bianca learns that everybody feels like the DUFF sometimes, even her pretty, skinny best friends. She learns that words only have the power that we give them, and she gains a new level of self-respect. This is great, really. But I think it would have worked better if, instead of halting their physical relationship, Bianca had finally been able to enjoy it rather than feeling gross and dirty about it. Her backing away seemed to negate all that character development. Yet again, good idea, poor execution.

One of the great things about young adult literature is the underlying message, and while The DUFF got started on the right path, it didn’t quite achieve what it set out to do.

Since finishing the book, I’ve learned that Keplinger was only 18 years old when she wrote it. I’m impressed that someone of that age could accomplish a reasonably good full-length novel, but I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised at the author’s age. While the concept is great, the whole thing feels kind of juvenile.

In the end, I can go for the concept of the book a lot more than the finished product. Still, it has a good message hidden in there if you can figure out where the author was going. Three stars for a good first effort. 

Final rating: ★★★☆☆

For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #3: a book that became a movie.

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