Dietland by Sarai Walker

I was too squeamish for bulimia and lacked the masochism needed for anorexia, so once I had cycled through every diet I could find, I went back to Waist Watchers.

The Beauty Myth meets Fight Club meets Fat is a Feminist Issue meets Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – that sums up Sarai Walker’s satirical novel, Dietland.

The novel focuses on Plum Kettle. Plum is in her twenties and works behind the scenes at a popular teen girls’ magazine, answering fan mail (which is generally about boys and body image). Plum is 300 pounds, and has spent a lifetime wishing she was ‘normal’.

In my real life I would have more friends, and dinner parties and overnight guests, but my life wasn’t real yet.

Having tried every possible diet with no ‘success’, she’s scheduled drastic stomach-stapling surgery.

I wanted to become smaller so I wouldn’t be seen.

The story begins in the months before the surgery, when Plum unwittingly becomes involved with a group of feminists. As Plum begins to look at the diet industry from a different perspective, a terrorist group known as Jennifer, hits the media. Jennifer targets the people that mistreat women, including rapists, pimps and media moguls (of the Girls Gone Wild variety) – there are abductions, murders and the public dumping of bodies. Jennifer makes demands, publishes lists of potential targets, and manages to evade the authorities. Plum begins to wonder if her new feminist friends are involved.

Dietland may sound complicated, and in some ways it is, however the themes of gender inequality, weight loss obsession, and the falseness of the beauty industry, are familiar territory, allowing Walker’s satire to hit the right note.

After looking through my collection of liners and lipsticks, I settled on a pink shade called Statutory.

And yet, I’m in two minds about this book.

I loved Jennifer’s increasingly preposterous acts of revenge, particularly the pièce de résistance, the ‘Penis Blacklist’, which comprised the names of one hundred men, whose penises ‘must not be given shelter inside any woman’ (or all involved would be killed).

Walker has clearly made Jennifer a completely over-the-top, attention-grabbing outfit and as the antics escalated, I thought about the story in reverse – in other words, if I were reading about women as the targets… Oh wait… That shit actually happens. Huh. Walker might not be addressing new issues but her angle is fresh.

My niggles – I wondered why Plum had to become mean as she became ‘enlightened’? Was it years of bottled-up rage?  It didn’t quite sit right given that initially Plum was channelling her energy in a productive way – the sudden turn to acts of violence and petty crime were out-of-character.

Secondly, it felt like an either/or situation for Plum. She wanted the things people crave – love, friendship, fulfilling work – and while all of these things were part of her ‘thin fantasy’, they weren’t necessarily part of her ‘stay the way I am’ life. Instead, we have Plum furious at ‘normal-sized’ women and throwing out all that goes with them… Was Plum ‘settling’ for different dreams in deciding to remain fat? I’m hoping that wasn’t Walker’s intent.

Ultimately, there are two stories in Dietland – Plum and her battle with the diet industry, and the Jennifer terrorists. Both stories could have stood alone. Together, they created slightly too much noise. But while I’m on it, the Jennifer story was truly sensational, and funny, and terrifying.

3/5 Thought-provoking.

I received my copy of Dietland from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 13): Belfast 7°-12° and Melbourne 9°-18°.

…since I was being good, I took only a small bite of the oatmeal cookie. Two teenage girls at the next table smirked as they watched me.


7 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

    • The ‘Jennifer’ story was particularly strong – kind of wished the author had just gone with that but perhaps there has been too much in that genre already??

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