Remember Julie and Julia? This movie took the world by storm and with it, the sales of Julie Powell's novel by the same name sent her to the best seller list.
The entire concept is true. She was a temp in New York City married to a sweet man named Eric who, on a whim, decided to cook her way through Julia Child's cookbook and blog about it. The idea of becoming famous from such a simple notion is part of the draw to the story, to Julie Powell. At the end of the book you love her and everything about her. The pride you feel when she finally lands a book deal is as if your own child just won the Nobel prize, and then you go on to read Cleaving, her second Memoir. I did not read the reviews on Cleaving before I read it, I never do. While I enjoy writing about books, I find that my opinions fall quite differently than those of reviewers so I often skip the headlines. I probably should have read them, just this once.
Before going into too much detail, let me state this review is going to contain spoilers right and left. If you're going to pick up this little treasure any time soon, you may want to bypass my ideas as I'm going to be openly honest about the book, its contents, and how I felt when I was finished reading it.
The writing is sound. She is an excellent writer and has a way with words, particularly foul words. I am no stranger to cussing, my mouth is far from clean all the time but I'm not sure I've ever heard a woman so eloquently drop an "F" bomb page after page after page. But, I digress. This book follows her new career focus, becoming a butcher hence the title Cleaving. Within the pages of this provocative and personal memoir, Julie Powell shares the moments of professional and personal failure and triumph taking the reader on an emotional roller coaster, mostly towards her.
The book is a metaphor of sorts - a comparison of two unlikely things. She has an innate desire to learn the art of butchery. By trade, this concept stems from taking an entire cow (or pig or goat) and hacking it into bits until it is something small and manageable. By doing this, she hopes to reclaim her life - hack it down to small and manageable bits that she can control. Her apprenticeship as a butcher is at a small family owned butcher shop in upstate New York, Fleisher's Grass-fed and Organic Meats. When the book opens we learn that her marriage to sweet Eric is in the trash and she is amidst a raunchy affair with a man she refers to only as "D" throughout the entire book. This, I admit, broke my heart. The portrayal of her husband in Julie and Julia was that of perfection. Not a perfect man, but a perfect union - a completion of soul mates. I struggled for the entire book to wrap my head around why she chose to cheat on her husband.
Each week she pulls further and further away from her marriage and as her affair also falls apart, we see the downward spiral of what was a confident and seemingly together woman into a disheveled and lost little girl with a "daddy complex". I think for me, the affair was offensive enough, but on more than one occasion she graphically describes random sexual encounters with strangers in seedy hotel lobbies where she just wants the thrill of a man other than Eric. I do not understand this. It made me angry, sick even to read about it but I kept on moving along in the hopes that she was going to pull herself out of the "funk" she is in throughout this book.
The book has two sections from what I can tell - the technical side of being a butcher and the emotional side of being Julie Powell. The beginning chapters are full of lengthy descriptions on how to completely dismember and separate out specific cuts of meat - while informative for the next time I order a steak, they lose something in the translation on the page. As her apprenticeship comes to a close, she makes a choice to travel hoping to learn the art of butchery abroad. Eric, the husband, stays behind continuing to put up with this sham of marriage she is putting him through. It is beyond me why he didn't just leave her - beyond me.
As she travels the world viewing butchery and restaurants in other countries, I found myself less and less interested in her life. While she was drinking blood from a goat in Tanzania, Africa and talking about how it tasted good, warm, and like metal I became detached from her as a reader. It seems that after all the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears that were poured into Julie and Julia to become a writer, she then exposed her "dark side" in this novel instead of waiting on a gossip columnist to get wind of her broken life.
In the end this is a very self-centered and selfish story. I understand the concept of a memoir being a little "me me me", but the narcissistic approach taken in this piece is a bit appalling at times. The books contains extremely embarrassing sexual encounters with more detail than I believe the reader needed and private arguments with her husband aired out for all the world to see. If she was seeking sympathy in this book, it missed the mark by a mile. If she was seeking judgment, the verdict does not fall in her favor. While the memoir is all about Julie Powell, as you read - you end up simply hating Julie Powell.
The novel reads like a train wreck, you don't want to watch, but you just can't look away. I'm not sure what the goal of this book was for her? I'm sure she received more satisfaction from writing it than I did from reading it. I wonder if I'd not read Julie and Julia first, would I be as offended? Would her extreme candor and recollection of intimate moments never to be shared bother me as much? Do I, like her in Julie and Julia, want to see a marriage of love and bliss like what was presented with Julia and Paul Child? I don't know. What I do know is if I pick up another book by her it will stem from nothing more than morbid curiosity and a desire to know if Eric finally walked away from the marriage she was hell-bent on ruining in Cleaving.
The memoir revolves around her constant search for peace in her existence, breaking down each moment of her life as if it is a cow to be slaughtered and what she finds is that she can't. If you want her to remain America's Sweetheart that can cook French food, don't crack the spine of Cleaving.