Disrupting the Status Quo with Dietland by Sarai Walker

Every day, Plum Kettle sits in a Brooklyn caffe, typing out responses to emails young girls have sent to the founder of the teen magazine she works for. But despite sending frequent emails to the tune of “you’re beautiful just the way you are!” she isn’t able to accept her own body; at almost 30 years old, Plum weighs 300 pounds and is saving up for the weight-loss surgery that she believes will allow her life to finally begin.

However, all of Plum’s well-laid plans begin to unravel the day she realizes she’s being followed by a girl wearing brightly colored tights. This discovery sparks a chain of events that will change Plum — and the world around her — in shocking ways. As she becomes involved with an underground feminist collective, she gets to know the paranoid manager of the magazine’s Beauty Closet, the daughter of a weight-loss magnate, and a former beauty icon, among other colorful characters. And at the same time, the news cycle is dominated by numerous assaults on the patriarchy, culminating in the murder of 12 known sexual assailants and rapists by a mysterious killer known only as Jennifer.

“Before, the covers of the men’s and women’s magazines alike had featured women, but now most of them featured men instead. London was being renovated, and the wallpaper covering every surface of the city was no longer decorated with women. The default Londoner, the implied viewer of everything, was no longer male.

Tourism increased, with women from many countries anxious to see what was happening firsthand, but there were also unforeseen consequences. London was scheduled to host the G8 Summit, but world leaders complained. The French president commented on a British television advert that featured a man washing his hair with a new floral-scented shampoo; the man was so excited by the shampooing experience that he made orgasm sounds as he massaged his head. “I cannot be taken seriously in such an environment,” the French president said.”

Based on the cover and title of Dietland, I was expecting something fluffy and shallow. I mean, an overweight woman working for a NYC magazine? How many times has that been done in chick lit? However, once I picked up this book, I couldn’t put it down. What could have been a predictable novel built on tropes turned out to be a bold, daring book about conventional beauty standards and self-acceptance. I loved the nuanced, honest way it portrays the experience of a woman whose main goal every day is to be invisible — to blend in and not receive any hurtful remarks — because of her socially mandated discomfort with her body.

But beyond that, Dietland is a ridiculously fun novel. As unknown “terrorists” turn the patriarchy upside down, the novel feels like a feminist Fight Club, with its disruption of the status quo. Don’t be fooled by Dietland‘s package; like the cupcake on its cover, it may look sweet, but it’s really a grenade that’s about to blow up.

Disclosure: If you make a purchase through the link above, I will make a tiny commission.

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Three Books ‘The Bell Jar’ Fans Will Love

Three Books Bell Jar Fans Will LoveSylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is one of my all-time favorite books. A semi-autobiographical novel about Plath’s descent into madness during and after her internship at a New York City magazine, this book deals with a lot of issues that are still relevant more than 50 years after its publication. It explores identity, isolation, sexual double standards, and the pressures society puts on women. These are timeless themes that have attracted generations of readers who can relate to Sylvia/Esther in different ways. But one problem readers may face after reading this book is: what to read next?

I have three reading recommendations for fans of The Bell Jar, ranging from YA to adult literature.

 

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Belzhar by Meg WolizterPublished by Dutton Juvenile, Sep. 30, 2014*

What it’s about: A year after her boyfriend’s death, Jam Gallahue finds herself at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teens in rural Vermont. When she arrives at her new school, she finds out she has been enrolled in “Special Topics in English,” an exclusive, supposedly life-changing class. For the duration of the semester, the five students in this class focus on the work of one author: Sylvia Plath. In addition to their studying, they are required to keep a journal. But when they write in their antique leather journals, an unexpected thing happens: They are transported to another world, which Jam and her classmates code-name Belzhar, where they are forced to confront their pasts. Over the next few months, they bond over their experiences with their journals and help each other heal.

Why Plath fans will love it: Isn’t going to a rural boarding school and exclusively reading the work of Sylvia Plath kind of the dream? Plot-wise, the novel has a few parallels to The Bell Jar, but it’s also wonderful to see these teens learn about Plath, relate to her feelings of isolation, and heal while reading her work.

This is a YA novel, and it would be the perfect read for a teen who has recently read The Bell Jar and wants to read more in the same vein. I think adults will enjoy this novel, as well. Although as an adult, I rolled my eyes at the intensity of Jam’s depression over losing a guy she knew for 41 days, I had to remind myself that that’s what being a teen is really like. Adults might have trouble relating to Jam’s feelings, but I think this book will carry them back to their teenage years if they allow it to.

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin MoranPublished by Harper, Sep. 23, 2014*

What it’s about: It’s 1990, and 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan is sick of her boring, virginal self. After embarrassing herself on local TV proves to be the last straw, she decides to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde, a top-hat-wearing badass who is always up for drinks, cigarettes, and sex. She gets a job writing scathing 600-word music reviews for a London publication and spends her nights partying, getting off with all sorts of inappropriate men, and pining after the swoon-worthy rock troubadour John Kite. However, Johanna can’t keep up this facade for long, and eventually it all comes crashing down on her, forcing her to accept who she really is and consider the value of dorky happiness over hip cynicism.

Why Plath fans will love it: This book is marketed as The Bell Jar meets Rizzo from Grease, and I think this is an apt simile. How to Build a Girl has the grittiness of Rizzo and shares themes with Plath’s novel. Like The Bell Jar, this book explores sex, identity, and the pressures young women face to be a certain way. Johanna feels that, in order to be accepted and perceived of as “cool,” she has to cultivate a certain personality. However, her brash, cynical, promiscuous alter-ego is more a product of what she believes other people want to see than who she actually is. This eventually leads to a breakdown, after which she is able to find some clarity. This explosive novel is what you would get if Esther Greenwood grew up in 1990s England rather than 1950s Massachusetts.

The Wife by Meg Wolizter

The Wife by Meg WolitzerPublished by Scribner, Mar. 25, 2003

What it’s about: At Smith College in the 1950s, Joan falls in love with her creative writing professor, Joe. Although he is married with a baby, the two of them embark on an affair that eventually brings Joe to leave his wife. After years of struggling in tiny apartments, Joe’s first novel is a hit, and the couple are swept into a whirlwind of literary success. He goes on to be a major figure in American letters, winning awards right and left while Joan watches from the sidelines, her own literary ambitions silenced.

Predictably, Joe doesn’t remain faithful to Joan for long, and their outwardly perfect marriage is shadowed by his infidelity. Now, after decades of marriage, with their children grown and Joe about to win a major literary award, Joan reminisces about her relationship and finally decides to leave her husband once and for all. (Full review)

Why Plath fans will love it: There might actually be too many reasons to list, but I’ll try. First off, it’s partially set at Smith College in the 1950s! Joan could very well have been classmates with Sylvia Plath herself. In addition, The Wife features a female protagonist who is unhappy with the status quo but seemingly powerless to change it. Joan is an excellent writer, but she is warned against pursuing writing as a career. Throughout her life, Joan sees how her society is dominated by men and how art made by women isn’t taken seriously. Like The Bell Jar, this novel examines sexual double standards pertaining to the roles of wives and husbands, literature and its creators, and sexual expectations for men and women.

Have you read any other books that are reminiscent of The Bell Jar?

*I received complimentary copies of Belzhar and How to Build a Girl from the publishers for review consideration.

Book Review: The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

Book Review: The Wife by Meg WolitzerTHE WIFE
by Meg Wolitzer

Fiction
Scribner, 2003
Paperback; 192 pages
Source: Purchase

While on a plane to Helsinki, where her famous author husband will receive a major literary prize, Joan Castleman finally decides to leave the man she has spent most of her life with. From her seat in first class, she reminisces about her life with Joe, which started when she was a student at Smith College in the 1950s.

When Joan walks into her creative writing class at Smith, she is immediately drawn to Joe, the charming young professor. Joe, in turn, is impressed by her writing skills, and eventually he leaves his wife and baby for his promising student. For years they struggle in tiny apartments, Joan working at a publishing house while Joe tries to write a novel. Continue reading