When last we heard from Julie Powell — in the pages of her best-selling 2005 memoir Julie & Julia, as well as in Nora Ephron’s recent hit movie of the same name — the feisty amateur chef was offering butter at a shrine to American culinary muse Julia Child. And, as always, standing by Powell as she giggled was the author’s superhumanly patient husband, Eric.
Eric is still presented as a superhumanly patient life partner in Cleaving. But Powell is not nearly so kind to herself in this weirdly reckless, occasionally shocking, somewhat forced, and altogether unsettling followup, a memoir as emotionally bloody as Julie & Julia was sweet. The truth, which didn’t fit into her first serving, was that Powell’s marriage had been charred by her obsessive, passionate affair with a lover she calls D — and that Eric knew about D but hung on to the marriage anyway. Even when Eric found distraction with another woman — a distraction his wife sanctioned — he still didn’t call it quits. Julie, meanwhile, decided that what she really, really wanted to do was learn to chop up large animals into cuts of meat, because butchers are hot, dangerous, competent, brutal, and good with their (insert sex-related meat pun here). So when she wasn’t feeling the earth move with D or her soul meld with Eric, she was zipping up the Hudson River to Kingston, N.Y., for an apprenticeship at a hippieish boutique butcher shop.
Cleaving can be hacked into rough cuts of story: There’s Julie the tormented adventuress, torn between two men (and even rougher anonymous sex). There’s Julie the practical best-selling author, who uses the study of butchering (she also visits meat markets around the world) as a high-concept meat hook on which to hang an unwieldy book project. And there’s Powell the gutsy, profane, energetic writer we first met mastering a stew from a recipe. Only here, she’s in a stew of her own making, with ingredients that leave a strange taste. B?