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Review: Cleaving by Julie Powell

I didn't want it to end up this way. But, unfortunately, it's true: Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, Julie Powell's follow up to the best selling, immensely fun and delightful Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, is not a very good book. It's dull. It's trite. And it reads more like an unbalanced woman's rambling than something being marketed as the Hot Holiday Memoir.

I started my first Book a Week series with Julie & Julia. It's a charming book where Powell sets out to cook every single recipe in Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking. It started as a blog, and once the blog caught media fire, became a book, then a movie starring Meryl Streep and directed by one of my heros, Nora Ephron.

That book isn't just about the cooking challenge, but also about being a 20-something stuck in the middle, and she can't get out of it. She married young, which is part of the story. The other is not knowing what she wants to do in life. Together, those conflicts and a fun true life story formed a very funny blog and charming book. It inspired me to start this blog, even if I'm not keeping to the strict "book a week" format anymore. I found great inspiration in what she did, and it helped me take on a project to work through a breakup. It wasn't a salve for everything, but it helped.

Cleaving is what happens after the fame and success, and it ain't pretty. Powell apprentices for six months as a butcher's shop in New York state after having a two year affair with someone she met in college. He's a sinister creature, even if she tries not to describe him as so. He's abrasive, distant, and plays her like a fiddle while her husband, a seemingly sweet guy, clings. The husband dates but still dotes on Powell, even as she makes little attempt to hide or end her affair.

Her actions are not what I'm judging here. It's hard to see her as sympathetic, but I've been caught in a relationship I can't shake, and I've read and appreciated books about far worse.

The reason I don't like the book is because the retelling of the whole sordid thing is dull. She whines -- a lot. Powell becomes that best friend who is dating the absolute wrong guy, knows it, still does it, and won't shut up about it.

In this case, though, that friend wrote a book about it. It's not something you want to listen to over the phone, and it doesn't make for good reading.

What this book would have looked like if she wrote it from years from now? The narrative ends in February 2008. That's hardly enough time to process the ordeal, especially since, even in the acknowledgments, it's unresolved. Have you ever tried to write about a break up right after it happened? It's impossible to do without sounding like a mopey teenager. In Cleaving, Powell has zero perspective. So when she tells the story, it reads like a diary recounting facts. The same kind of food writing is there, and some of the butchering information is fascinating, but it's not nearly enough to prop up the book.

Friends have told me than an exeprt from Cleaving appeared in movie-branded version of Julie & Julia, and that's where I think some of the problem lies. With all the attention heaped on the first book and the movie, I'm guessing Powell was under pressure to pop out another book. I read that the release has already been delayed once. The original timeline probably had the book publishing right when the movie hit, but now it's coming out in December.

One lesson to take away from the book, and it's more of a life one: marriage is not always the answer. Just getting married will not make people whole. It will not slice away all of their problems, their issues, and create a perfect being. It's not a balm. Money and professional success aren't either. This book shows that. Clearly.

I know a lot of people are going to buy this book anyway. The media storm means there's a lot of interest in Powell, and I got my preview copy of Cleaving in September when it's publishing in December. But if you're looking for a good book on a break up that involves food, try Nora Ephron's Heartburn, which is a fictionalized version of her break up with Carl Bernstein. It's a caustic novel, but intelligent, funny, and includes the same kind of wonderful food writing that Powell is known for. But the difference is that Ephron makes us care about the characters. By shading the truth in fiction, she can say how she really feels. Powell is far from clear. She's muddy in writing about herself, her husband, and her lover. A book about such an intense topic needs to be sharp. The wishy washy business? It's a disappointment.


Jennifer Fink said…
I was afraid this was going to happen.
That is disappointing. I wasn't crazy about the first book but still need to see the movie. I have only heard good things about it.
Unknown said…
That's kind of a bummer. Because I really loved Julie & Julia. The I may like it even less than you did, I will almost certainly read it anyway but perhaps it will go to the back of the line.
cat said…
You could see this possibility within the first book but somehow the momentum of the story (and the fact that most of what happened was unexpected) carried it. Having watched an interview with her, she did seem, I'm sorry to say, a little charm-less. It could have been an off day, true. Her 'story' always seemed a bit gimmicky to me - her idea to start a blog seemed about getting attention, and she basically admits this. But most bloggers don't start for that reason.

Thanks for the review! I enjoyed reading it.
Jessica said…
Great review. I had a very similar reaction to the book - I got a UK copy of the book and posted a review on my blog today. Disappointing is an understatement. It's too bad, too, because the idea behind the book was good - very poor execution.
LOVED the movie. Didn't read the first book.

I admit I read the second book in one day. I really wanted to see if she resolved things with her husband, though she didn't seem to deserve him and his pain was never highlighted. I enjoyed the beginnings of the butchery and thought the staff there earned a whole book.

What I came away with was one descriptive term: self-indulgent. Both to initiate the affair, to carry it on, and to write about it. Many of us have been faced with similar... shall we call them temptations? and have either chosen not to follow up because of the costs and the betrayal, or if we did, not to submit the situation to public scrutiny.

In the end, I'm not sure what I think except that I'm glad I'm not Eric.
Rachel said…
I have to say, I am not suprised. I did not find her to be a sympathetic character in the first book, she was pretty immature and whiny. It was obscured a bit because of all of the cooking but Julie never struck me as likeable or even genuine. I distinctly remember pitying her husband and wondering when she'd cheat or when they'd divorce. I guess I got my answer.
Rachel said…
I have to say, I am not suprised. I did not find her to be a sympathetic character in the first book, she was pretty immature and whiny. It was obscured a bit because of all of the cooking but Julie never struck me as likeable or even genuine. I distinctly remember pitying her husband and wondering when she'd cheat or when they'd divorce. I guess I got my answer.
Michael Pakaluk said…
What do you make of Moira Hodgson's review yesterday in the WSJ? It seems as if she finds the book compelling. And yet the review contains many highly under-stated put-downs.

Also, I was struck by the lack on any kind of moral dimension in Hodgon's review -- as if it's just fine to write a book about sado-masochistic adultery--that you can be a famous person confessing this in a memoir, and have the story of it published in the WSJ, and that's just fine.

Not knowing anything about Julie/Julia, I thought at first that the review had to be of a piece of fiction-- I had to check and re-check to convince myself it was of a memoir.

In fact, I was so surprised by this that I started looking online for other reviews, and that's how I found yours (which is excellent, by the way).
Jen A. Miller said…
Michael -

Thank you for bringing that review to my attention. I thought the review was OK, but it relied heavily on summary. Aside from a point at the top saying Julie & Julia was a good book and the last paragraph, it's a tight recount of what happens in the book.

I'm glad that you found my review to help you out. This is probably the most viewed review on this site.
Anonymous said…
sounds like i'll be skipping this one. thanks!
Britta said…
"Powell becomes that best friend who is dating the absolute wrong guy, knows it, still does it, and won't shut up about it."
This is the perfect summary of this memoir and why I'll be selling it back to the used book store after reading 2 chapters and quitting.
Katie said…
Check out any of Ruth Reichl's memoirs to see some real relationship drama AND good food writing done right. She was the editor of Gourmet and had a very interesting rise to the top. I agree, this book was a bummer :(
Jen A. Miller said…
Katie - Well said. I love her books.
Ninette said…
I agree with your review. I'm on Chapter 2, and I think this is going to be the very rare occasion that I won't continue reading.
Anonymous said…
I wish I hadn't read it, and I only read the affair parts. I feel bad for all those involved, except her, I think she's a sociopath, and who cares what they think? What leaves a very foul taste in your soul is the poor poor husband. In signing off on this book, I wonder if he realizes what he did to himself. She might be gone in a year, but this book is around forever. All the casual lovers and the main lover, the s&m, the predatory obsession, the two years Eric put up with it all. I don't need to be musing about this, I shouldn't have read it.
I felt exactly the same, Domesticjoy. Sullied to have read it, embarrassed for her and yet even more sickened by her, everything you say. I'm so glad my name is not on the spine of this book. And I couldn't think of anyone I could wish the book on, to get it out of my house.
Aravinda said…
One would think that she would have made enough money from her first book to wait and make the second one really good or at least better than the first. The first one was readable because she did something creative and challenging. Sadly reading the second one feels like slowing down to stare at a gruesome scene on the road.

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