Bianca's never really given much thought to the discrepancies between her physical appearance and those of her two best friends. It's not until popular-boy Wesley offhandedly calls her The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) that she begins to take note of her somewhat average looks. She's always known she's not supermodel beautiful, but that one little word seeps into her memory and refuses to leave.
To make matters worse, she finds herself paired with Wesley for a school assignment and is therefore unable to completely shun him for all eternity as she would have liked. Even more unfortunate is the more time she spends with him, the more she realizes their lives aren't so different, as both are filled with unaddressed family problems and persistent insecurities.
Unable to admit her feelings for, and closeted relationship with, Wesley to her best friends, Bianca finds herself increasingly isolated from the world around her, left to deal with an absentee mother and a father with a history of alcohol abuse. And to her utter shock, the only person who even remotely understands is the person she wants most to hate but is frighteningly coming to care about.
The DUFF, a story based on a fundamentally repulsive acronym, is unapologetically honest and at times so realistic it's easy to forget we're reading a piece of fiction. This is not a cute, quirky, comforting read; instead it's frustrating, irritating, and sometimes uncomfortable in it's portrayal of a teenage life, but so often that's how brutal honesty makes us feel. Life would be much easier and far more pleasant if it consisted predominantly of genial platitudes and general niceties, forgoing the difficulty and bitterness in favor of a complacent superficiality that cheats us out of emotional depth. The DUFF doesn't try to win our favor and approval by placating us with half truths coated in sugar so they're easier to swallow, presenting it's story instead without fancy trimmings and eloquent descriptions, and leaving behind a blunt, straightforward tale we appreciate all the more for it's unwavering truthfulness.
Bianca is beautifully depicted, earning our sympathy (though she certainly doesn't need it or ask for it) after her initial encounter with Wesley, but our relationship with her isn't always smooth. Her sense of humor and use of sarcasm are charming, and we can't help but respect a girl who refuses to be intimidated by a lopsided smile and a pretty face. Just when we wish for the ability to defy the laws of nature and want nothing more than to reach through the pages to leave a pulsing red welt in the shape of our hand on the masculine beauty of Wesley's face, we can sit back and smile as Bianca rises to the occasion and does it in our stead. She doesn't always make the smart decisions however, in fact she often makes questionable ones that cause us, the invested yet outside observers, to shake our heads in dismay. She is flawed, makes mistakes, and says and does things she shouldn't, but through her flaws it's so easy to see ourselves reflected back at us, knowing our choices haven't always been wise either. As a result of this revelation, we hold Bianca close to our hearts as our connection to her becomes a closed circuit through which all of our shared feelings travel back and forth between fiction and reality, character and reader, and friend and confidante.
Wesley is a character we make a valid and noble attempt to dislike, his initial hurtful assessment of Bianca's physical attractiveness spiking a bout of righteous indignation on her behalf so spectacularly intense it seems he'll never be able to survive the insufferable cold of our emotional freeze. However, soon his subtle charm begins to weave around us without our conscious recognition, intangible cords binding us to him unexpectedly until we can no longer deny his appeal, and we find ourselves desperately hoping he'll drop a fraction of the bravado and show us the decency we can sense is buried deep but is making a slow ascent to the surface. He is uncannily capable of inspiring a wealth of contradictory emotions in Bianca, making her both angry and happy, causing her to feel both ugly and beautiful, and embarrassing her while also providing her with a confidence she was lacking previously. For his part, he is both attractive and at times repugnant, a combination which makes him a fascinating character who adds a vital piece to a stunningly imperfect story.
The DUFF isn't always pretty, nor is it always fun to read. It's infuriating and difficult, but also so very satisfying in it's frankness, presenting us with a tale where characters are forced to deal with the hand they've been dealt; some utilizing the sensual heat of a physical relationship to obliterate reality, and others finding solace in the numbing warmth of a bottle, but all are struggling with relatable emotional challenges. Not everyone will love this story or it's characters, but it doesn't coddle us with a perfect male lead and a magical solution to significant problems, and we can all acknowledge life isn't always pretty or fun either. We don't always wake up excited to start the day and sometimes the problems in our lives overshadow the joys, but we can take comfort in knowing we're not alone in the journey, and sometimes we discover the support we need comes in an unexpected and not always welcome form.