Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: Dietland by Sarai Walker

The weight loss industry as a whole in the US rakes in roughly 60 billion dollars annually. With fully one third of Americans qualifying as obese, many of those paying into this vast industry are women. They are searching for a thinner, healthier life. But they are also searching for acceptance, visibility, and a release from the shame and humiliation of being fat in our thin obsessed culture. Just as the real women paying into the diet industry, Plum Kettle, in Sarai Walker's subversive, thoughtful novel, Dietland, is also searching for the thin woman inside her, the real life she's supposed to live, and ultimately an appreciation for herself.

As the assistant to the editor of a teen magazine, Plum writes off the record advice letters to young girls and teens who are suffering from a variety of problems and who are all clearly hurting emotionally. Plum got this job because she was supposed to have good insight into the angst suffered by these girls. After all, Plum is, to her eternal shame, fat. In fact, she's more than 300 pounds and works from home so that her boss Kitty doesn't have to see her everyday, this gross anomaly in the rake thin world of fashion. But Kitty isn't the only one who looks away from Plum, Plum herself wants to look away. She knows that people in public stare at her and make rude, hurtful comments, that she does not fit the societal construct of beauty or even just of normal and she's internalized these values too. After a lifetime in the clutches off the weight loss industry, having tried every diet out there, Plum is determined to have bariatric surgery. She knows that there is a thin woman named Alicia (Plum's real name) inside her just waiting to come out and start living her life instead of continuing in this overweight and unhappy holding pattern.

Just one month out from her much anticipated surgery, Plum notices she's being followed. Normally timid and self-effacing, Plum confronts the young woman who is stalking her, a move that will lead her to a fundamental change in her entire world view. Given a copy by Leeta, the young woman who oserved her for so long, she reads a book, Adventures in Dietland, an expose of a harsh and restrictive diet plan which Plum followed when she was younger, written by the daughter of the diet's founder. Then she gets to meet Verena Baptist, the author, and is welcomed into Calliope House, the home that Verena runs, a place where women can be true to themselves and to their feminist goals. Concurrently with Plum's gradual awakening to her own potential and to an acceptance of her body as it is, the media jumps on a gruesome story. Two men who went free, their brutal crimes against a young military woman officially brushed under the rug, are discovered murdered, stuffed in sacks, and dumped off a highway bridge. Each of them has a piece of paper with the name Jennifer written on it and stuffed down his throat. As Plum transforms herself mentally and emotionally, more gruesome acts of violence, retaliations against men and other exploiters of women, with responsibility claimed by the person or persons behind Jennifer, occur. On a grand scale, with these attacks, society scrambles to stop objectifying and blaming women while on a smaller scale, Plum stops accepting the fat-shaming and invisibility that has always been her lot.

The ills that Jennifer, the generic name of everywoman, wants to rectify are larger than Plum's but even her negative body image is a small piece of those ills; it is symptomatic of an image obsessed, patriarchal privileged society. Walker is clearly making a point here with an initially powerless main character taking over her own life, living on her own terms, and becoming empowered, and with a guerrilla group demanding justice for women. The two plot lines start off mostly unrelated but come together in ways both anticipated and unexpected and they mostly work together although the guerrilla plot line with its bigger, more encompassing issues, takes something away from Plum's more personal struggles, trivializing them to a degree. Plum's character changes substantially between the first and second parts as well. Jennifer's tactics start to be over the top unbelievable and Plum too goes beyond decent human being-hood to being constantly angry and antagonistic. The ending is a bizarre one but perhaps in keeping with the fantastical psychological warfare of the previous 300 pages. The novel is definitely uncomfortable, disturbing, and directly confrontational, and some readers will be uncomfortable with the militancy of some of the characters' actions but it is wonderfully discussable with issues of societal norms, unrealistic media portrayals of women, the commodifying of the female body, self-esteem and what drives self-worth, the ubiquity of dieting and the continued profitability of the diet industry, and the need to be something appealing, sexy, enviable, something less than real.

1 comment:

  1. Kristen, looks like a fab book! It would be great if you added your review to the Books You Loved: November collection over at Carole's Chatter. Cheers


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