In fact, ever since I met her in Los Angeles last summer, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to make her my best friend…without creepily stalking her online, of course.
Anyway, I really liked her first book, Julie & Julia, when I read it in 2007, way before all the recent film hype. I was very excited to read her second book, Cleaving, which was released in December. Though, I confess that I wasn’t interested in the art of butchery so much as I was in the details of her extra-marital affair.
In Julie & Julia, Powell often refers to her husband as her soulmate; she calls him “my Eric.” They seemed like the perfect couple, the kind who “finish each other's sentences,” who was meant to be together, who stuck together no matter what. So, I was shocked to learn that she cheated on her beloved Eric, who very much comes off like a saint in her first book. But, as Powell writes, “It turns out that things, even perfect things, pieces that seem to fit, to work together, can warp and crack and change.”
When I met Powell, she talked about her husband as if they were still married. I thought they were divorced, based on an article about cooking for one Powell wrote for the New York Times in April, 2006. So, I was confused but didn’t think it was appropriate to ask her if she was still married.
I got my answer in Cleaving, a book all about her affair, her separation, and her redemption through meat. Well, through butchery. (Is Julie Powell divorced? I’m not going to answer that for you; you’ll have to read the book yourself.)
One of the things I like best about Julie & Julia is Powell’s voice; she’s not as whiney & annoying as she’s portrayed in the film. Instead, she’s independent, forward, emotional, and out-spoken. She’s simply raw.
When I asked her what she thought about how Nora Ephron altered her character in the Julie & Julia movie, she said, “It’s a PG-13 romantic comedy. They sweetened me. In real life, I’m rated R.” In a USA Today interview last November, Powell said, " [Amy Adams] captured the drive that I felt and the reason behind the Julia project. I did have to get my head around the fact that someone so perky and sweet and lovely would be playing me, because I'm not particularly sweet."
In Cleaving, Powell might be going for an X-rating with her uncensored descriptions of afternoon trysts, S & M, drunken one-night stands, unabashed flirting, and sexual assault.
Amidst the sexcapades and emotional turmoil are narratives of Powell’s experience as an apprentice in a butcher shop. She uses anecdotes about dissecting massive amounts of meat as metaphors. According to Paula Forbes on Eat Me Daily, “It is, essentially, the act of breaking down an entity into smaller, more manageable pieces. […] But in the end (spoiler!) Powell realizes that dividing everything into smaller parts can only do so much, and she has to examine her life as a whole to find peace.”
Cleaving has gotten a number of negative reviews, calling the book too honest, unpleasant, mind-numbing, “skanky and tawdry and silly.” Of course, as with her first book, she is called narcissistic as well. Powell has never tried to conceal her narcissism. In fact, she embraces it. Her own blog tagline even reads: “Musings from a ‘soiled and narcissistic whore’.”
Some critics didn’t like the fact that she enjoyed her affair or that she was honest about her feelings. They seemed to be critical of the very aspects of memoirs in general; I mean, let’s be honest…memoirs by their very nature are selfish.
Powell is unapologetic about her affair and subsequent obsession with her lover. But, critics shouldn’t be so quick to judge her negatively. Husband Eric wasn’t just the innocent victim here; he had an on-going affair, too.
However, many critics do agree that Powell is a talented writer, they just didn’t seem to like her topic or her candor.
I think Forbes put it best when she wrote:
In truth, the food world can be a bit too clean. The internet drips with pristine and lovely pictures of fairytale cupcakes, caramelized roasts and vibrant bins of farmers' market produce, and apart from the masculine bravado of Anthony Bourdain and his acolytes, it can get a little cloying. Life is messy; food is messy. Above all, heartbreak is messy. Powell's book is messy, and even more, it's messy without glamorizing the mess. It's a real trainwreck that at times is very uncomfortable to read.(You can read the beginning of Cleaving here.)