***minor spoilers, but how else are you supposed to talk about the book?***
Have you ever been disappointed in a book because it promised to be one thing, and was doing so well at that, only to falter in concluding things? That was how I felt about Dietland – a book that I raced through recently, and was really interested in, only to watch the concluding chapters be hastily written, and leaving me feeling unsatisfied.
But let me go back. Dietland is the story of Plum – she’s a young woman, working in New York City as the personal letter-writing assistant to the editor-in-chief of a magazine for teen girls. Plum’s job is to personally answer all the advice-seeking letters that come to this editor who has high ideals, but is not very good at fulfilling them herself. Plum likes her job, because she feels closer to the writing world where she wants to be, but also because it allows her to work at home and not go in to the building full of stick-thin fashion editors who work at the magazine. Because Plum is very overweight, and she’s not comfortable with that. Her dream is save all her money (from living in a family sublet) and use her savings (and a lot of credit) to get gastric bypass surgery. She even has the date set in a few months. Until a stranger comes into her life…
I love those “until” moments in stories. And this one grabbed me. Plum is deeply unhappy with the general situation of her life, and has all these grand plans for what is going to happen once she’s thin. It’s something we’re shown in the book that is highly destructive, because not only is Plum putting off her entire life until she’s thin enough to “enjoy” it, she’s investing her money in that dream too – she has bought a full wardrobe of beautiful clothes for “Alicia” – her name at birth, and the the identity that she dreams of becoming. Anyone who has read a self-help book of any kind knows that the visualization that Plum is doing is good, but that putting off her life in the meantime is TERRIBLE.
The jolt comes in the form of someone following Plum, and it turns out that this follower plunges Plum into a world where women are trying to re-claim their lives. Plum reads a book about the woman who started the diet empire that has been so central to her way of life and goal of weight loss. She meets a woman who challenges her idea of whether or not following through with surgery is the right thing. She has an unusual makeover that is fascinating to behold. She becomes involved with a group of other women fighting for their rights.
And this is linked to the secondary story line that tracks throughout the book – someone named Jennifer is taking revenge on men for their misdeeds. Not just little things, but the violent misdeeds that men in society perpetrate against women. It becomes a violent feminist fantasy (with a touch of misandry thrown in) where men live in fear the way that so many women do on a daily basis. It’s both deeply satisfying to read, but scary to watch something be blown to a level where you begin to feel guilty on behalf of members of your own sex (is that how men feel sometimes?).
Is it a good book? Yes and No. For probably the first 2/3, we get a fascinating look at the feminist education of our dear Plum, and it’s wonderful to watch her eyes slowly be opened to the world and how she is not the thing that is wrong in the world. Unfortunately, we get to watch things go off the rails, and to see Plum go in a direction that no one was expecting, and then for there to be no real resolution. Sure, we see Plum’s incredible transformation, but we do not see what that means for how she lives her life in the future. The wrapping up of the terrorism subplot is much more satisfying because we get explanations for all the things that were teased along the way.
Should you read this book? Sure? It’s eye-opening, and a fast and engaging read. If you consider yourself a feminist, it will reconfirm many of those ideals, while scaring you at the prospect of violent overthrow of the patriarchy. You will enjoy it, and then probably want to throw the book against a wall when things end so abruptly without real conclusion or resolution. But that first 2/3 is worth the frustration…if you think you can handle it.
Details: Dietland by Sarai Walker, published 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt