Julie Powell's new book Cleaving is not the sequel Julie &Julia book and movie fans are expecting.
The new book is three separate stories: the affair she has that almost ends her marriage to her husband Eric; a butchery apprenticeship she undertakes at Fleisher's, a grass-fed/organic meat butcher shop in Kingston, New York; and then a travelogue of her butchery odyssey where she treks off toTanzania, Ukraine, and Tanzania. The three narratives are alluded to in the book's subtitle "A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession."
If the affair didn't finish off the marriage, it's hard to imagine that this book wouldn't. Everything about the descriptions constitute "too much information," with high "ick" and 'ewww" factors -- not the least of which are the details surrounding the fact that the author "likes it rough."
Interspersed inexpertly with her descriptions of breaking down a tenderloin ("the seam of a tenderloin is very thin indeed and therefore hard to follow. It's easy to lose your way...") are narrative descriptions of a very unhealthy relationship with "D" ("I was gazing fondly at the bruise his teeth had left on my upper arm.") He comes across as a very unlikeable guy, the kinda guy who talks entirely too much about Team America. Her relationship with him makes her come across as a pretty unlikeable girl, just by unsavory association. The fact that she chose to write it all down in graphic detail where her husband (for the moment) can read them just makes her seem unnecessarily cruel.
(She includes a 3-minute stand -- literally, a stand -- that she then texts to D "Just had the worst sex in the world with a total stranger to try to get you out of my head. It didn't work. I know you want nothing to do with me, but I need help. Please. XxxxoHH-j." (Nora Ephron is responsible for a lot of cinematic silliness, and she is just never gonna put THAT in a movie.)
Her food writing is definitely stronger than the porn writing, although she clearly works to fuse the two, as in this description of porchetta, "a whole pig, boned out, seasoned, and stuffed with an insane melange of indulgence -- garlic, onions, truffles, and several brined pork loins wrapped in bacon -- then rolled up around a huge spit...It looked so much like a penis that there was no joke to be made among even these embracers of the obvious."
Entirely too many passages begin with variations on the phrase, "I've thought a lot about...." Great memoir writers know it's hard to make "thinking" (also known as "navel gazing") interesting. Show don't tell. Remember, she moved to New York to become an actress, not a writer.
That's probably why Cleaving feels more like a "project" or a "book deal" than an actual book. The butchery angle seems like an engineered contrivance -- friendly "sequel" material.
The really, really unfortunate thing about that is that Bill Buford already wrote that book -- superbly -- in 2006. The book was Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. It's a little shocking that critics haven't brought this up yet, because the structural similarities are close enough that someone should've tweaked the deal (maybe recommended a bakery instead of a butcher shop) -- if only to keep Powell from being showed up so dimly by comparison.
It hardly seems fair, especially because Buford, as former editor of Granta and former fiction editor of the New Yorker, clearly has the literary journalism advantage. The New York Times Review of Heat was called Will Work for Food The critic concluded "Heat is a remarkable journey — I only wish I'd thought to make it." The thing is, she could've, but she wouldn't have gotten a Bill Buford book out of it. But entirely too many people seemed struck by the same idea -- and what followed was a rash of "a year in the life of..." everything from goat farming to cherry picking. Powell's is really just another variation.
The thing is, there might've been a good book in what happened to the girl who started the Julie and Julia blog, and then got a book deal, and then a movie deal out of it, and then started another blog, where she's still brave enough to tell the readers where and when she'll be drinking. Maybe nobody wanted to pay her to write that book. And Nora Ephron most definitely wouldn't make a movie out of it.
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