Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sarai Walker's "Dietland" - An Angry, Funny, Wonderful Feminist Novel

Sarai Walker’s novel “Dietland” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) reminds me of Marilyn French’s furious 1977 novel, “The Women’s Room.” That novel described the lives of women in the U.S. during the 1950s and early 1960s, and was full of anger about the restricted roles, prejudice, and discrimination that women faced at the time. Although not tremendously well written, in my opinion, the book struck a chord with many, many women, including me; I remember being riveted by it. “The Women’s Room” was, in a sense, the novelized version of Betty Friedan’s hugely influential 1963 nonfiction book, “The Feminine Mystique,” but angrier and more radical. Those of us who were feminists in the 1970s and onward hoped and believed that most of the problems of sexism would be remedied in the coming decades. And of course much progress has been made. But “Dietland” reminds us how many problems still exist, even in “developed” countries such as the United States. Walker starts with the issue of the pressure on girls and women to be thin and beautiful, no matter what they have to do to achieve that status (hence the title). But we soon see that this issue is only part of the focus on larger issues of discrimination and violence against women. The novel -- and it is a novel, not nonfiction, but it deals with many issues -- describes a group of women who fight back, using unorthodox and even illegal means, which they feel are justified by the crimes and violence done against women. The central character and narrator, Plum Kettle, is a very large woman who has experienced daily discrimination as such, and is planning to have weight loss surgery. She is contacted by several loosely connected women who try to convince her not to have the surgery, and not to give in to society’s expectations regarding women’s bodies and lives. Soon she is both supported by these women and drawn into some of their activities, legal and not-so-legal. The novel is powerful and, as two of the back cover blurbers term it, “subversive.” But the novel is not just a feminist screed (not that there would be anything wrong with that, in my opinion!); it is also a page-turner of a story, with plot twists, surprises, fascinating characters, and touches of humor. I haven’t seen such an explicitly feminist novel for a while, and I welcome it; we need more fiction that engages with important social issues, including those regarding women’s lives. Brava, Sarai Walker!
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