We don’t review a ton of books on this blog, but Sam came across this one and asked for a volunteer to read and review it. I quickly said yes, because this is exactly the kind of thing I like to read in the shower: a “lighthearted” tale of an Australian woman’s “misadventures in the search for wellness.” Basically, a blog in book form. (I’ll get to that whole reading in the shower thing some other time. It’s a family quirk. Once you get over the fallacy that books should be kept dry, whole worlds open up).
I actually started reading this book in the bath at Susan’s cottage way back in April, and about 60 pages in, I got out of the bath and, still in my towel, kind of ranted about the book. “Listen to the way this woman describes her need to do this ridiculous detox!”
“My body was not a temple, it was a stockyard, where dirty animals passed through, where there was some horsetrading, it was busy and noisy and full of action. Stockyards are dynamic places and useful things happen there. But they’re far from the idea of the temple and they’re certainly not clean.”
It really set me off: “She’s all ‘oh I was drinking and eating and sometimes doing party drugs and just generally having a good time so I decided to get CLEAN and of course the only way to do that is to STOP EATING FOR LIKE TWO MONTHS and let someone pummel me every day until I bruise.’
Susan, ever practical, said, “she wasn’t working then, was she?”
No. Her whole job was this “detox” so she could write about it for a magazine. And it took her to page 88 to even ask the question about whether or not this kind of radical fast was a good idea. The first several chapters are full of “jokes” about how weak she felt or how her one spoon of rice on new year’s eve made her feel “full” or nonsensical explanations of the “theory” of fasting”:
“Part of the appeal — if you can call it that — of fasting or restrictive diets is the notion that you can reset your tastebuds. It’s like a hard restart or system upgrade on your computer. You switch it off and the buggy bits — the bits that crave salt and grease and sugar — can be expelled, and in their place your body will crave salads, vegetables and gallons of water. Willpower isn’t necessary when this happens. You just follow your cravings and they will lead you to the organic vegetable aisle.”
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work that way. Of course she loses a ton of weight on this fast, but then the desire to, you know, be able to walk up the stairs, takes over and she starts to eat again and regains the weight.
That pretty much takes care of the “Clean” section of the book. Then we have “Lean” (her years-long relationship with yoga, also done in obsessive every single day terms, coupled with colonic irrigation, though I might be confusing that with another part of the book). And finally we have the section on “Serene” (meditation and a quest for spiritual calm, in classes all over hipster neighbourhoods in Melbourne and Brooklyn, retreats in Sri Lanka and Bali, five day hikes in northern Australia).
The thing is, I can empathize with Delaney’s quest — I think everyone who reads this blog has gone down a lot of winding pathways trying to find balance between our sense of inner equilibrium, our strength, our experience of our bodies matching what we yearn for, wanting to find a way to be of the world but not pushed and pulled by endless distraction.
And while being a bit Breathlessly! Hilarious! in all of it (never trust a narrator blurb-writers compare to Bridget Jones), Delaney does have something of a critical gaze on what she’s doing. She notes how much praise she got for being super lean after her fast, while saying clearly “this is not a real person’s body — this is not sustainable.” She describes the irony of how the theoretically simple desire for wellness has spawned a complex, profit-based wellness industry, as well as the exploitation that comes along with any system that relies on gurus and acolytes (most notably, Bikram yoga). And throughout the last section of the book, she explores why we may use Wellness to fill the space of morality, certainty and mystery that was once held by the organized religion for most people in the Western world. All of this does help hold the skittery nature of her quest together, though I’m still never sure of her actual point of view.
The biggest problem with Wellmania is that Delaney tries to take an experiential tone throughout most of the book, and the nuggets of insight never really infuse her in-the-moment descriptions of what she’s doing. You never know whether she really believes that her body is a stockyard or that detoxing is like cleaning out your filing cabinet. And more problematic to me, I never figure out whether she ever comes to realize that there is no “one right answer” that will deliver the equilibrium and sense of inner/outer burnishment she yearns for. In the final note of the book, she does acknowledge that “shooting for serenity” is an everyday, ongoing practice — but even in that, there’s an implication that “doing it right” means “doing it every day.”
In the end, it took me a couple of months to actually read Wellmania, because I was so put off by the “Clean” section. I developed more affection for Delaney when I finally worked my way through the last two sections, and could empathize with some of her descriptions of wanting to hang onto the momentary wellbeing that come from focused presence in yoga or meditation. As a shower read, I’d give it two and a half bars of soap out of five.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives in Toronto, where she is endlessly in search of equilibrium. (In this photo she’s in Vancouver for work two weeks ago, happily running around Stanley Park). She writes for the blog on the second Friday and third Saturday of every month.