I tried to find Julie Powell’s new book, Cleaving, at Barnes and Noble shortly before Christmas. When I asked an employee, she told me it wasn’t worth buying in her opinion. With a hand earnestly over her heart, she said she took marriage seriously unlike the author. With advice like that, I had to read the book, even though I had planned on just skimming it.
Cleaving is the second memoir from Julie Powell, the first being the mega-successful cooking blog-inspired Julie & Julia which spawned a charming film starring Meryl Streep. Reviews of Cleaving were mixed; the follow-up to Powell’s life involved an apprenticeship at a butcher shop and a crumbling marriage with infidelity on both sides. I’m somewhat of a voyeur and had so many questions for Powell at the end of Julie & Julia. Such as:
Did Julie always plan for her blog to lead to a book contract? Unlike the movie, in the book she claimed to be a failed actress stuck temping in NYC for years. She wasn’t that diligent of a cook so what did she plan to do after her yearlong project of cooking every Julia Child recipe ended? Why did she treat her husband like a doormat? Their marriage seemed to be a little troubled even at the time, so how was it surviving Julie’s success?
The book answered a lot of my questions. Julie seems unable to let go of her husband even after both have affairs. She turns to a visceral, physical job of butchering in a shop in upstate NY. She compared every event in her life to her new work with meat: think chopping her feelings, bleeding of hearts, and deboning the excess from her life. After her butchering apprenticeship ends, she goes on a trip: Around the (Meat) World in 80 days to reflect on her her life. She ends the book not happily ever after, butchering again but still working on her marriage.
Unlike most critics, I liked the book. Yes, Julie Powell may score high on the narcisstic personality scale but so does every other memoir writer. I think they’re just better at hiding it. I do believe Julie deeply loves her husband Eric as this line proves, when a friend suggests divorce:
As if we could just apply enough pressure, push hard enough, and come loose from each other with a satisfying pop. She doesn’t quite realize we’re one thing, Eric and I. Not the ‘one flesh’ bullshit of the wedding ceremony. But one bone. You can’t snap a bone in two with a delicious pop. You have to hack, saw, destroy.
The book is bawdy and realistic about love, relationships, and cheating. I found Powell immensely relatable when she describes her affair ending, the sadness and craziness which sets in — even after her first her book has become a mega-hit. She is still on a quest for happiness; critical and financial success did not change her core.
The only time I feel Powell moves off track are the passages I feel were added to make her book marketable. I could have done without all the meat metaphors – yes, I get she’s a cooking writer, but just as much as Augusten Burroughs books should be in the mental health section. And the entire traveling section seemed to be lifted from Eat, Pray, Love. Julie Powell is no Elizabeth Gilbert. They shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence.
I look forward to Julie’s maturation as a writer and almost hope she doesn’t find true happiness – at least not until she writes another book.