By Julie Powell
Little, Brown, $24.99, 307 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
As I beheld the spectacle of Julie Powell’s life as rendered in her memoir “Cleaving,” I couldn’t help thinking of one of the priceless moments in that wonderful 1970s television program “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Mary and her sidekick Rhoda, thirtysomethings both, encounter at a party some holdovers from the ‘60s who are still in their 20s. “Let’s go out and act weird,” they say to Mary and Rhoda, “and hope that someone notices.”
And that’s really the essence of this deeply dispiriting book, which chronicles its author’s life in the wake of her astonishing success with her blog about making all the recipes in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cookery” which later morphed into a best-selling book, “Julie & Julia” and, more recently, a hit movie. Everything in it, from the auto-destruction of her marriage via a sordid affair to becoming immersed in the business of butchering (and even slaughtering) animals, has a huge sign with arrows pointing to Ms. Powell saying “Look at Me”- and defiantly, desperately hoping that someone will notice.
Obviously, to some extent anyway, such a phenomenon is sufficiently endemic in the blogosphere that it shouldn’t be a huge surprise to encounter it in a performance like Ms. Powell‘s. And there are, to be fair, blogs and blogs, some of them actually containing thoughtful discourse. Pace Marshall McLuhan, it is the message and not the medium, which is to the point.
So consider the message of the original Julie/Julia blog and especially just where the blogger ranks in that duo. Essentially, Ms. Powell’s enterprise was a parasitic one: she was jumping on the tail of a comet in the world of food. Yes, it is an achievement of sorts to cook all those demanding recipes, but compare that to the years of trial and error, of true enterprise, of sailing against all manner of currents, cultural and commercial, which was Julia Child’s truly groundbreaking achievement. She really did change the way American eats.
Put that next to what Ms. Powell did in “Julie & Julia” and you really do see a giant versus a pygmy. Notice whose name came first in the book, though. Again, “Look at Me.” There’s nothing wrong with self-promotion in itself - it depends fundamentally on who is promoting themselves and what goes along with it - and certainly Child was no slouch at that game. But what she had going for her was a genuinely interesting biography and life experience central to her achievement and a distinctive voice and mien to augment a physically imposing presence.
And how she labored for so many years unrewarded before achieving her fame and fortune: she really had paid her dues in so many ways. It says a lot about our 21st-century American culture that someone can achieve such celebrity and its rewards with relative ease, simply by jumping on the coattails of a great figure from the (relatively recent) past.
That’s not the most depressing thing about “Cleaving” though. What is truly appalling is to see how someone can allow fame and good fortune to wreak havoc on so much that is precious in Ms. Powell’s life. By her own account, her marriage was a happy one, and even now you can sense a real affection and love on her part for her husband. Although the story of her self-destructive love affair with its revelations of all manner of emotional and physical depredations is a pathetic one, she does deserve some credit for honesty. She takes no prisoners, spares no one, very definitely including herself. But it’s one thing to be tough on yourself, but what about husband Eric and lover D?
As Ms. Powell admits in her acknowledgments:
“Most of all, I thank Eric and D. Writing your own story is easy enough; having your story written by another is hard. I am grateful down to my toes to you both, for your generosity and grace in handling a situation difficult and not of your choosing.”
Aye, there’s the rub. The situation was of Ms. Powell’s choosing, and she seems defiantly content enough with her choices - writing her story really does come too easily for her - despite all the grief they brought on her and others. For her, there is the comfort of all that attention-getting, but what about the collateral damage? And for this reader anyway, it’s hard to know which is sadder, her plus or their minuses.
Dispiriting though her tale is, Ms. Powell does write well, something which is rarer among bloggers than might be expected. Her title, with its many meanings appropriate to her story, is a perfect one. Her descriptions of the ins and outs of butchery are powerful, although not for the squeamish, as is also the description of the actual slaughter of a hog. Her writing here is multifaceted, in part genuinely emotional, but also at times prurient and verging on the pornographic. And throughout, it is really hard to escape feeling that everything she does in “Cleaving,” whether it be physical or emotional, is done for effect and to show off. In the end, this is even more damaging to her book than it seems to have been to her life.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.