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Plum Kettle's life is one of routine and monotony. After checking in daily at Waist Watchers for her weigh-in, she heads to the cafe where she spends most of the day working. She comes home to her empty Brooklyn apartment to cook Waist Watchers meals for herself. Every day she wears black baggy clothes to hide the body she hates. Plum dreams of becoming Alicia, her thin self hiding under the fat she has struggled with all her life. When she notices she is being followed by a young woman in bright clothing, an adventure of transformation, terrorism, feminism and self-discovery gets underway. Plum Kettle is the courageous heroine of Sarai Walker's wonderful debut novel, DIETLAND.

The woman following Plum is Leeta, who first leaves a book for Plum and then connects her with the book's author and a group of radical females fighting for equality and safety for all women. The book is Adventures in Dietland by Verena Baptist, the daughter of the founder of a once popular diet program that Plum participated in years ago. Verena's book exposes as a charlatan her late mother, Eulayla Baptist, who made a fortune selling diet books, program support and pre-made meals to Americans. Mostly, though, Eulayla was selling a lifestyle based on the hopes and dreams of her customers, capitalizing on their anxieties about weight and body image. Verena's book damns her mother and the entire “Baptist way” as fraudulent and even dangerous.

"DIETLAND is a fantastic book. There is humor, great characters, nuanced discussions of gender and body image, and in-your-face arguments about oppression and suppression of women in the US."

But Verena's real influence on Plum is not to alert her to the truths of the diet program Plum long ceased to be part of. Rather, it is to introduce her to the women of the Calliope House and the idea that, for the first time in her life, she can be truly happy as she is, without the need to conform to body and gender expectations based on conventional beauty, thinness and subservience. While Plum is being pushed to her emotional limits and forced to confront her own ideas about happiness and self, across the country and across the ocean in England, a series of attacks are taking place on men who have committed violent crimes against women and girls. Misogynistic companies, like the publishing empire that Plum works for, are coming under fire for promoting unrealistic and socially damaging images of women and girls. From makeup to pornography, from diets to rape culture, Walker lambasts a society in which women are rarely free to be themselves and often find themselves at the physical mercy of men.

Walker deftly handles her serious subject matter and crafts an enjoyable novel. Plum and the other women of DIETLAND are likable and understandable, even when acting in extreme and violent ways. Plum is an everywoman: self-conscious about her appearance, romantically frustrated, professionally bored. But she rises above the roles she is assigned and low status she has always been given by questioning how the world perceives her and how she has always accepted that perception. Plum is mirrored by Jennifer, the other everywoman, who exacts a terrible revenge on men who harm women.

One very wise move on Walker's part (and there is much wisdom in DIETLAND) is to make it very clear that Plum's weight issues are not the result of trauma or abuse. In fact, she is often physically compared to her grandmother, who in family pictures is smiling. Her family actually discourages her from fad diets, encourages her talents and loves her unconditionally. The problem, Walker asserts, is with a world that judges her for the size she wears.

DIETLAND is a fantastic book. There is humor, great characters, nuanced discussions of gender and body image, and in-your-face arguments about oppression and suppression of women in the US. Plum's story, small and personal to her, is told against the backdrop of increasing tensions between detrimental gender bias (and worse) and the women who refuse to accept it any longer. Walker writes with a confidence and style that make this smart and subversive novel a pleasure to read.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on May 29, 2015

by Sarai Walker

  • Publication Date: May 29, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 1328534839
  • ISBN-13: 9781328534835