The DUFF by Kody Keplinger
Published: 2010, Poppy
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Source: Personal collection
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I was the Duff. And that was a good thing. Because anyone who didn't feel like the Duff must not have friends. Every girl feels unattractive sometimes. Why had it taken me so long to figure that out? Why had I been stressing over that dumb word for so long when it was so simple? I should be proud to be the Duff. Proud to have great friends who, in their minds, were my Duffs.
Cynical Bianca Piper is more than ready to graduate from high school and leave her small hometown far behind. Besides her two best friends, Bianca doesn't have much she'd miss. Certainly not the freshman year pseudo-relationship that broke her heart and hardened her against any future romance. Nor the household that has increasingly become inhabited only by her father and herself, as her mother continues to book motivational speech tours across the country.
And to top it all off, one evening at the local teen nightclub, Bianca runs into Wesley Rush, the most sought-after womanizer at her high school. Although she wants nothing to do with him, Wesley asks if she can at least pretend to speak to him, because it's well-proven that guys who interact with the Duffs in any group have a better chance of hooking up with her friends. Duff stands for "designated ugly fat friend," according to Wesley, and Bianca fills that position in her group of friends. Bianca adamantly refuses to be privy to his scheme and even throws a glass of Cherry Coke in his face upon learning of his nickname for her.
But life in the final semester of her senior year has gotten more complicated than she can handle, and Bianca seeks some way to escape from the challenges she faces in every direction.
Within this slim book, Kody Keplinger tackles many issues relevant to teens today: teen sex, pregnancy scares, alcohol abuse, friendships on rocky straits, love vs. like vs. lust, family problems, and, most importantly, self-confidence. The issues could have easily overwhelmed the novel, turning it into more of a guide on what (not) to do, but fortunately that wasn't the case. Keplinger adroitly handles the topics mentioned and more, melding them together into a story that is ultimately about the role that self-confidence can play in the lives of teens. Bianca certainly isn't representative of all teens, but through her struggles and those of her friends, I'm sure that many readers can find someone relatable.
Bianca makes a lot of stupid decisions, especially in light of the fact that she's a star student. When life becomes too hard for her to handle, she enters into a questionable sexual relationship with Wesley. She starts to ignore her friends and their offers of help. She pretends that everything is fine between her parents, even as the evidence to the contrary continues to pile up. Avoidance is her go-to solution; except, of course, when it comes to Wesley. Normally the combination of these behaviors would bother me, yet I found Bianca's character to be written in such a way that I could not help but emphasize with her situation.
The main reason that I never became fully frustrated with Bianca's decision-making had to do with how her relationship with Wesley is portrayed. Wesley is little more than an escape from Bianca's normal life. When they start hooking up, she acts as spiteful and disgusted towards him as usual. While relationships between people who "hate" each other is not an unusual trope, Keplinger employs it in a fresh new way. Bianca really doesn't have any good reasons to actually like Wesley, and she doesn't. He's still the same cocky, rude womanizer as before. He refers to her as "Duffy." And Bianca cannot cease wondering whether she really deserves to be seen as a Duff. Their relationship is not romanticized in the slightest, and the novel makes it pretty clear that a relationship cannot happen until Wesley begins to grow up, and until Bianca starts facing her issues.
Before reading this book, the concept of a Duff was completely unfamiliar to me. As it is unfamiliar to Bianca until Wesley tells her that she is, in fact, one. With this horribly derogative term forming the basis of her novel, Keplinger examines just how people conceptualize their self-worth. Each person has quality that makes him or her feel inferior. Whether it's physical appearance, mental acuity, background, interests, there's always something that makes us feel as though we cannot measure up to others. It's just part of life. Where The DUFF could have turned dark and forbidding, however, Keplinger opted instead to focus on hope. Just as we all have our insecurities, so, too, do we all have our strengths. It may take Bianca a long time to come to that conclusion, but she does eventually and her new found confidence is a pleasure to behold.
Kody Keplinger, I salute you. Not only have you written about subject matters I wasn't sure would have any appeal to me, but you wrote about them engagingly and realistically. Bianca is an unconventional heroine, and her story itself is far from conventional, but there is a lot within its pages for readers to relate to. This fresh young adult contemporary has left me clamoring for me from this author.
Rating: 4 stars