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.