Sometime in January, after the rush of the holidays had ended and my focus turned toward the upcoming spring season, I received a book in the mail. It was an advance review copy of Dietland, Sarai Walker’s debut novel, sent by the publisher. I took one look at the bright blue cover festooned with a sprinkly cupcake and immediately thought: I don’t love the term “Chick Lit”…but, this is Chick Lit, right? A capital-B capital-R Beach Read! Probably a story about a fat girl overcoming her fatness in some way, right? A few months later I finally read the book, and I’m happy to say that my initial assessment was only a tiny bit correct. Dietland was a deeper, more interesting and far more ambitious story than I expected…which I guess goes to demonstrate that whole thing about not judging a book by its cover (at the very least, I should have looked more closely; that adorable sprinkly cupcake is actually a grenade.).
Walker’s narrator, Plum Kettle, is a three-hundred-pound twentysomething Brooklynite who leads a purposely small life. She divides her time between her apartment (where she keeps a closet full of cute dresses in small sizes – for the thin woman she’s convinced she’ll be someday) and the local café, where she sits with her laptop, answering fan email for a glossy magazine aimed at teenage girls. She attends Waist Watchers meetings and dutifully counts every calorie, but this hasn’t gotten her any closer to the thin person she wants to be. Plum’s life takes an unexpected turn, though, when a mysterious girl in combat boots and neon tights starts following her, eventually presenting her with a manuscript entitled, simply, “Dietland.”
The discovery of this manuscript forces Plum to recall her painful adolescence, a time she spent trying desperately to adhere to an overly-rigid, almost cultlike weight loss regimen. It also leads her to a community of women who, in various ways, make it their mission to reject and subvert the standards of femininity set by celebrities, the media, etc. Eventually, slowly, as Plum gets to know these women better, she starts to see herself in a more forgiving light, and her meek facade turns into one of defiance. But at the same time that Plum’s eyes are opening to the injustice of the standards that have been set for her, a series of frightening crimes causes the entire world to consider the ramifications of a sexist society – a handful of men, all guilty of grossly mistreating women in some way, are kidnapped and murdered by a guerrilla group known only as “Jennifer.” In time, Plum realizes that the influence of Jennifer may be closer to home, and closer to her new friends, than she thought.
Ultimately, there’s a lot to like about Dietland. Walker writes in a vivid, imaginative way; she perfectly captures the artificial, plasticky nature of the weight loss industry and the slick, vaguely cheesy vibe of a lot of the media directed at women. Her depictions of Jennifer’s various crimes are lurid to the point that they’re almost unbelievable. But perhaps the best things about Dietland are Walker’s willingness to embrace complicated truths, and her refusal to see the turns of the story as either entirely good or entirely bad. Walker successfully avoids the temptation to turn Plum into a sad-sack caricature whose problems are all solved by a simple infusion of self-esteem. Plum eventually stops living solely for the future (she considers cancelling the gastric bypass surgery she had anticipated for so long) and defends the person that she actually is in the present…but her newly-found empowerment exposes her anger and often makes the people around her uncomfortable. Jennifer handily disposes of its targets, but its acts of revenge can’t undo the harm done to these men’s original victims. Walker is well aware that even the most hard-won victories and well-deserved incidents of justice have dark undersides and unintended consequences.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard reviewers refer to Dietland as a both a “feminist manifesto” and the “ultimate revenge fantasy”…but fortunately for us, it’s just not as simple as either of these things. And both Dietland and its readers are the better for it.