I remember myself, in my first few months in the Israeli army, telling myself I was different from the other girls. My parents lived in California. I didn’t finished high school in Israel. I didn’t like the same music or movies as them. Once I told myself this story, I documented and verified it with every available clue, and finally it became the Truth. Looking back with a wisdom acquired over twenty years of feeling different, I know this was a story I told myself and not a truth. Perhaps back at nineteen it was easier for me to make myself different — to reject myself before I risked rejection from the other girls.
I therefore tend to identify with characters who feel like they do not belong, such as Bianca, the protagonist in Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF. I enjoyed reading the novel with its romance, sex, conflict and high drama. But I think what most gripped me is that it made me think. I love it when a book does that!
For those of us who are clueless (like I was), DUFF is acronym for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Bianca is told she is the Duff by Wesley, who she herself has pigeonholed as a male slut. Starting with these stereotypes, Keplinger then proceeds to shatter whatever beliefs Bianca holds about herself, her parents, her friends, and of course Wesley, because stereotypes, after all, rarely describe who we really are.
So is Bianca the Duff because she is not blond and has non-existent breasts? or is her friend Casey the Duff because she is as tall as a giraffe? or is her other friend Jessica the Duff because of her airy, flaky personality? And who decides who the Duff is, anyways? Wesley calls Bianca the Duff, but it is Bianca who identifies herself with the word and makes it her own cross to bear. Only toward the end of the novel, when she confesses the word to Jessica and Casey, does she discover that each of them believes it refers better to herself.
Bianca learns compassion in the novel, and most of all, she learns compassion for herself. She understands the common humanity she shares with everyone else: “I should be proud to be the Duff. Proud to have great friends who, in their mind, were my Duffs.”
I have to admit, at the beginning of the novel, before I got to know Jessica and Casey, I resented them. I liked Bianca, and I didn’t want her to be the Duff. I thought she was the Duff because they made her so, that they hang out with her because she made them look better. So I loved this twist! I loved how their friendship truly came from the heart, from the places where they each most felt vulnerable. I agree with Bianca when she accepts Wesley’s assertion that he is not the Duff, telling him flatly: “That’s because you don’t have friends.”