I am not a fan of whiney people. I also have no tolerance for martyrs or the self-flagellating. As such, I definitely had a problem with Julie Powell’s new memoir, Cleaving: A Story of Meat, Marriage and Obsession. I thought her first book, Julie and Julia, was a fairly good, light read based on a project that I could see myself trying: cooking my way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Granted, the movie was disappointing: Amy Adams and her bad haircut may have given the most wooden performance of her career, and Meryl Streep THEBESTACTRESSOFALLTIME was just so muppety as Julia Child.
Julie and Julia, Sony Pictures.
The blah movie notwithstanding, I was rooting for Julie Powell, a fellow blogger, a person just like me who hated her day job and was interested in food and writing. A person just like me whose blog catapulted her out of her mundane life. I wasn’t bothered by her unapologetic narcissism or her chatty blog style, even when Julia Child refused to endorse the ‘stunt’ project and said “I don’t think she’s [Powell] a serious cook.” That said, I found her new book, Cleaving, one of the most unpleasant reads of my life.
Here’s the gist of the book: just as Powell finished writing Julie and Julia, she started having an affair with an old college boyfriend, “D”. Her husband finds out about the affair, but Powell decides that she doesn’t want to stop diddling D and nevertheless wants to remain married. Powell and her husband each dole out their share of misery and abuse. Everything turns terrible, and Powell flees to an upstate New York butchery to work out her aggression by chopping up animals.
The butchery is meant to be therapeutic, of course, and we’re steered to believe the memoir is mostly about Powell’s apprenticeship with master butchers. But really, the book turns out to be about how incredibly amazing her affair was, how incredibly devious Powell is, and how marvelously flawed she reveals herself to be. Through all the explicit descriptions of how mind-blowing the sex is with D, Powell’s regret or shame is hard to locate. The reader starts to think: “That poor, idiot husband.”
Basically, my main issue with this memoir boils down to this: why would any one care? It’s easy to trick your reader after writing a feel-good, gooey Julia Child book into basically reading your personal journal. But where is the contrition? What’s the point? It’s basically tell, tell, tell. Tell about how you like being slapped around, the dirty texting, your propensity as a stalker, your desperation after D breaks up with you, your resentment of the fact that most people would feel guilty in your situation.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe it’s more than acceptable to write about your dishonest, regrettable past in memoir form. But to come out on top, some sort of reflection about past mistakes is appreciated. Powell takes the opposite approach and just brags her way through one crappy action after another. She lacks an internal perspective; she not only offers her husband no respect, but her readers. In one part of the book, Powell describes how a fan approaches her on the street, gushes about loving her work, and mistakes “D” for her husband. Powell goes along with the ruse.
I almost laugh in dizzy relief, right in the woman’s face. I must look completely dazed, with hectic eyes and a plastered-on smile. D’s no wild-eyed rebel, doesn’t race hot rods or start fistfights in bars or snort lines off strippers’ asses … (much … that I know of). But he has a way of, with just a sly smile, a tiny lie, making me feel gleefully wild. I am trembling; I can’t wait to get him home.
Oh, gag. What comes through in the book is this moment really was hilarious to Powell, and this sort of devious behavior really made D irresistible. The main theme of the book rang clear: she knew she should feel bad, but she didn’t.
In a response to the overwhelming criticism received for Cleaving, Powell defends herself (albeit in a self-indulgent, victim-y way) to Slate Magazine, saying that if you don’t like this book, it says more about you than it does about the book. I’m sure that escaping the dippy foodie book genre was liberating for Powell, as she was trying to be daring as a writer. I get the feeling, though, that she got more out of her liberation than her readers will.