Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: May 26th 2015
Genres: Chick Lit, Contemporary, Debut, Fiction
Once I had a taste of real food, I always wanted more. I spent my days tiptoeing around food, the way one might tiptoe into a baby’s room while it’s sleeping. One wrong move and the baby wakes up and screams. That’s how it was with hunger, too. Once it awakes, it screams and screams and there’s only one way to quiet it.
First of all, I promise to restrain myself from the plethora of wordplay about food that is going to want to burst forth from me regarding Dietland by Sarai Walker. It’s an over-the-top novel about food, weight, and society. Alicia is a morbidly obese young woman who has faced a lifetime of ridicule about her weight. She has failed every diet plan out there despite subsisting on fake lasagna with plastic cheese. In desperation, she decides to sign up for weight-loss surgery, at which point not only her life but also the novel turns upside down.
As incongruous as it sounds, Plum works for a fashion magazine, but only from home, answering letters from young women about their life issues. Through her job, she meets Verena Bishop, a woman whose mother created a famous weight loss plan and made millions. After her mother’s death Verena writes a scathing indictment of both the diet industry and specifically her mother’s company. Plum reads the book and is led to Verena, who offers her $20,000 for the plastic surgery she’ll need after her stomach stapling, but only if Plum fulfills a series of tasks which Verena hopes will make her re-evaluate wanting the surgery at all. The tasks are largely to boost Plum’s self-acceptance but the final one is to go on four blind dates.
There is a lot to chew on (sorry, I made it into paragraph three, but I’m weak) in Dietland and because it’s fiction I’m not going to weigh-in on matters of weight, self-esteem and health. Suffice it to say, the public derision Plum faces for her weight is no greater than what she feels towards herself yet she cannot find a way to lose it. Walker strikes a difficult balance in the face of these multi-layered issues by imbuing Plum with enough intelligence and awareness that her self-loathing is painful. However, after each of her blind dates has either literally run away or publicly humiliated her, Plum regains some of her power by deciding:
Because I’m fat, I know how horrible everyone is. If I looked like a normal woman, if I looked like you, then I’d never know how cruel and shallow people are. I see a different side of humanity.
If this sounds like a lot for one novel, it is but it mostly works. No matter how you feel about the subject or where you fit on the spectrum, Walker will evoke compassion and a response. However, I’m not finished. In addition to Plum there is an entire secondary plot in Dietland about a feminist vigilante group called the Jennifers that exacts retribution for crimes against women. Using the slimmest of connections, one of the women being sought for these crimes is someone Plum knows via the fashion magazine. Uhmmm…OK.
Dietland is a novel that calls out a number of the institutions that seem to exist to make women feel bad about themselves. However, Walker bites off way more than she can chew (I can’t keep apologizing). Plum and her issues with her weight, self-esteem and health are more than enough to make a statement and provide great reading. When you add in feminist terrorists that begin to eliminate men they have targeted for targeting women, you’re are talking plot overload. Characters become cardboard stand-ins for people I might have cared about and while the Jennifers’ vicious ideas of justice gave me a bit of a YES! thrill tying them into a novel about an overweight woman stretches the feminist theme too thin. More importantly, by the end of the novel it weakens Plum’s story and Walker’s prose to the point that neither works. Much like the diet chow Plum forces herself to eat, Dietland is not ultimately satisfying.