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Sarai Walker’s imaginative thriller ‘Dietland’ is anchored by one woman’s inner growth

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Heather Scott Partington

Two and a half stars

Dietland By Sarai Walker, $26.

Sarai Walker’s Dietland is a subversive, Fight Club-inspired feminist conspiracy novel. Plum Kettle is overweight and unhappy. At 300-plus pounds, she’s been living a restricted life for years—counting calories obsessively and answering “Dear Kitty” letters for the editor of teen magazine Daisy Chain from home. (The editor deems her too big to work in the magazine’s glittering tower.)

“When I think of my life at that time, back then,” Plum says, “I imagine looking down on it as if it were contained in a box, like a diorama—there are the neighborhood streets, and I am a figurine dressed in black. My daily activities kept me within a five-block radius. ... I saw myself as an outline then, waiting to be filled in.”

Life isn’t static for long. On a spring day, Plum notices a girl following her. When she tries to find out what this girl’s up to, she meets Verena Baptist, heir to the Baptist weight loss empire. Verena challenges Plum to take charge of her own life. Dietland takes off when Verena puts Plum on her Baptist Plan—one that is both inspired by and the opposite of Verena’s mother’s calorie-restrictive mandates. Before Plum can be changed, Verena breaks her spirit (through some questionable methods) and opens her mind. Makeovers are only the beginning—Verena requires total mental reconditioning.

Meanwhile, a terrorist organization called Jennifer takes men to task for bad behavior. Poor treatment of women is punished with increasing frequency and bloodthirst. Two known rapists are dropped from a freeway overpass: “The men were alive when they were placed inside the brown canvas bags. Two men, two bags. During the night, the bags were dropped from the Harbor Freeway Interchange, the tallest in Southern California.”

Plum’s storyline eventually entwines with that of the Jennifer group, reflecting the fact that much of the violence done by women is done to themselves. In its description of violent acts to mitigate negative treatment of women, Dietland offers social commentary without becoming didactic. The characters’ methods are extreme, but they make evident the inequity that’s passively ignored all the time. Walker’s work is in the vein of another recent genre-bending feminist thriller, Emily Schultz’s The Blondes. In both books, extreme violence highlights the injustice of gender norms.

Though it oscillates between social commentary on weight loss and violent conspiratorial feminist plotting, Dietland works. Walker balances the two well; Plum is never a stereotype or a caricature, and her inner growth is what makes the book. “The trauma of becoming a woman” is under Walker’s microscope, and she never lets us look away.

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