Dietland by Sarai Walker

Dietland has a cupcake on the cover – but do a double take, because that’s a cupcake grenade.  You think you’ve read this book, about a young overweight woman in New York City, trying to be a writer, trying (and failing) to lose weight. IMG_2266But this is not that book.  This is something darker, more subversive, and infinitely more pleasing.

Our heroine is Plum (Alicia) Kettle, living in an rent-reduced apartment owned by her cousin, working every day on her laptop at a cafe.  She writes advice letters to teen girls (about cutting, self-esteem, boys, etc.) who write in to the editor of the teen mag Daisy Chain.  They think they’re writing to editor Kitty, but Plum is crafting the responses.  She weighs around 300 pounds, has one friend, and no love life.  Her routine is work, Waist Watcher meetings, and home.  She’s got a gastric bypass surgery scheduled in a few months, and she pins all of her hopes for a “normal” life on the results of that.

Gradually she notices a young woman following her around, a young woman wearing colorful tights, combat boots, and black eyeliner.  Curious but not frightened, Plum confronts the spy, but she plays it off.  One day Plum covers her friend’s shift at the cafe and the girl gets in line to order.  When she gets to the counter, she takes Plum’s hand and writes one word on it in lip pencil: DIETLAND.  Plum is confused and embarrassed, thinking perhaps that it’s an insult.  Her next encounter with the strange girl is in the bathroom of the Daisy Chain office, where she is given a book: Adventures in Dietland by Verena Baptist. It’s a name that brings Plum back to her teenage days of dieting extremes and humiliation.

I don’t want to give more away, because part of the fun in reading Dietland is in unraveling the mystery.  You’ve got the two story lines, Plum’s physical and emotional journey, and the actions of this enigma of a young woman, coming together in all sorts of unexpected and moving ways.  It’s decidedly more disturbing than one might expect, with a powerfully feminist tone, which I loved.  This is sort of like Fight Club combined with a Jennifer Weiner novel, a revenge-fantasy and smart critique of our body-shaming, sexually violent culture.  Really smart, really provocative, totally absorbing.  One of my favorite of 2015.

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