A Reader’s Journal: DIETLAND by Sarai Walker (audiobook read by Tara Sands)

I was a tiny child, small and thin. Pregnancy at the age of nineteen changed the “thin” for good—I never got any taller, but I did gradually get bigger. At several inches under five feet tall, I don’t have a lot of wiggle room on the BMI scale, and I’ve spent most of the last twenty years or so entrenched in the “overweight” bracket, occasionally tipping over into “obese”. I worked at achieving Lifetime Member status in Weight Watchers, and then watched the weight return. I’ve adjusted and readjusted eating habits. I’ve been prescribed medications to manage my blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. But if I were carrying the same number of pounds dispersed over just six more inches of height (which would make me 5’2”), my weight would probably cause me very little trouble at all.

With all that as preamble, I doubt I would have read Sarai Walker’s Dietland if it weren’t for the bloggers. I’d already pre-judged it much as Leah did before she cracked it open:

”Based on the cover and title of Dietland, I was expecting something fluffy and shallow. I mean, an overweight woman working for a NYC magazine? How many times has that been done in chick lit?”

But Jeanne whetted my interest by revealing just how much this was not a book to be judged by its cover:

’How could I resist a satiric novel about dieting titled Dietland and featuring a picture of a hand-grenade cupcake with sprinkles and a cherry on its cover? This new novel by Sarai Walker is delightful reading for anyone who has ever tried a reducing diet, and practically required for anyone who, like me, has tried lots of them including one with terrible-tasting pre-packaged food like the ‘Baptist diet’ in the novel.”

And then April featured it in a “Fabulous Feminist Friday” review:

Dietland takes on all the issues. Gender inequality, fat shaming being one of the last acceptable prejudices, beauty culture. The writing is good, there are some characters that seem a little underdeveloped, but I almost wonder if this was intentional – if these characters are less characters and more caricatures. For me that worked with the satire and social commentary that Walker was creating.”

And in one of those odd coincidences of life and art, I was in the middle of reading the audiobook when I got together with a long-time friend who recently had the weight-loss surgery that Dietland’s protagonist, Alicia “Plum” Kettle, is preparing for when the novel opens.

At thirty years old, Plum has been obese since childhood and is a veteran of nearly every weight-loss plan in existence. Convinced there’s a thin woman trying to get out of the body she refuses to describe as “fat,” she’s sure that weight-loss surgery is the only way to make that happen; she’s biding her time and saving her money until her “real,” thin-person life can start. And if this were all there was to Dietland, I could have stopped at my pre-judging.

As Plum’s ideas about who she is, and who she’s meant to be, are challenged by the members of a feminist collective, the country is riveted by a series of attacks on men linked to various sex-related offenses. It’s not a spoiler to note that these threads will come together eventually, as the activities of the activist (terrorist?) known only as “Jennifer” serve as reaction to and commentary on the objectification, subjugation, and depersonalization of modern women, while Plum’s personal experiences embody them.

That summary makes Dietland sound pretty serious…and it is. And yet it isn’t. It has serious points to make, but Sarai Walker makes them with intelligence and humor; the humor occasionally goes a bit over the top, but that’s not out of step with the novel’s satirical nature. Provocative and sometimes discomforting, particularly in its depictions of pornography, Dietland didn’t exactly defy my expectations—my blogger friends had given me a very good idea of what expectations to have—but it was a deeper, more satisfying read than its cover alone would have led me to expect.

Rating: Book, 3.75 of 5; Audio, 4 of 5

Sarai Walker (Twitter) (Facebook)
Audiobook read by Tara Sands
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 2015), Hardcover (ISBN 054437343X / 9780544373433)
Fiction, 320 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Highbridge Audio, May 2015; ISBN 9781622316137)

Book description, from the publisher’s website

Plum Kettle does her best not to be noticed, because when you’re fat, to be noticed is to be judged. Or mocked. Or worse. With her job answering fan mail for a popular teen girls’ magazine, she is biding her time until her weight-loss surgery. Only then can her true life as a thin person finally begin.

But when Plum notices she’s being followed by a mysterious woman in colorful tights and combat boots, she finds herself falling down a rabbit hole into the world of Calliope House, a community of women who live life on their own terms. Reluctant but intrigued, Plum agrees to a series of challenges that force her to deal with the real costs of becoming “beautiful.” At the same time, a dangerous guerilla group begins to terrorize a world that mistreats women, and as Plum grapples with her own personal struggles, she becomes entangled in a sinister plot. The consequences are explosive.

Part coming-of-age story, part revenge fantasy, Dietland, is a bold, original, and funny debut novel that takes on the beauty industry, gender inequality, and our weight loss obsession—from the inside out, and with fists flying.

Opening lines:

“It was late in the spring when I noticed that a girl was following me, nearly the end of May, a month that means perhaps or might be. She crept into the edges of my consciousness like something blurry coming into focus. She was an odd girl, tramping around in black boots with the laces undone, her legs covered in bright fruit-hued tights, like the colors in a roll of Life Savers. I didn’t know why she was following me. People stared at me wherever I went, but this was different. To the girl I was not an object of ridicule but a creature of interest. She would observe me and then write things in her red spiral-bound notebook.

“The first time I noticed the girl in a conscious way was at the café. On most days I did my work there, sitting at a table in the back with my laptop, answering messages from teenage girls. Dear Kitty, I have stretch marks on my boobs, please help. There was never any end to the messages and I usually sat at my table for hours, sipping cups of coffee and peppermint tea as I gave out the advice I wasn’t qualified to give. For three years the café had been my world. I couldn’t face working at home, trapped in my apartment all day with nothing to distract me from the drumbeat of Dear Kitty,Dear Kitty, please help me.

“One afternoon I looked up from a message I was typing and saw the girl sitting at a table nearby, restlessly tapping her lime green leg, her canvas bag slouched in the chair across from her. I realized that I’d seen her before. She’d been sitting on the stoop of my building that morning. She had long dark hair and I remembered how she turned to look at me. Our eyes met and it was this look that I would remember in the weeks and months to come, when her face was in the newspapers and on TV — the glance over the shoulder, the eyes peeking out from the thick black liner that framed them.”

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