Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review: Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession

Julie Powell, the author of Julie and Julia, in which she cooked her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French cooking in a year and then blogged about it, is back with a new memoir, this one about her foray into learning butchery. Unfortunately, Cleaving is also about the collapse of Powell's marriage to the "devoted" Eric and her affair with the charming D, a story that she would have been better off not telling — though it gives her opportunities to use meat metaphors to explain the decline of her marriage.

Unlike Julie and Julia, which had a structure (one year, cooking through a single book) and a goal (finishing the book), Cleaving has no such structure, and no clear goal (other than making sense of her relationships and learning butchery) and the book suffers for it. In the first part of Cleaving, Powell works as an apprentice for six months at a butcher shop in upstate New York, learning the ins and outs of cutting up animals. In the second part, she travels to Brazil, Ukraine and Tanzania to ostensibly learn about their butchery traditions, but those only merit a mention — she devotes more time writing about making out with one of her guides in Tanzania and getting her BlackBerry stolen during an attempted rape.

What do Powell and the reader learn by the end of the book? That Powell may not have come to terms with her relationships by the end of the book, but that she has proven to be obsessive and crazy. She continues to contact D, even after he breaks things off, waiting outside his office building for an hour and a half to give him a present she bought while on vacation with Eric:
The Monday after we return from France, I pull my first actual, for-real stalking. I easily convince myself it's only fair, after I've tried for so long to reach him in all the more usual, less invasive ways. I warn him ahead of time, via text, that I'll be there, with a gift. I wait for an hour and a half outside the door of the building where he works. When he finally comes out, my face melts into a soppy smile that I can't prevent at the sight of him But he merely grimaces as if in pain and keeps walking...
Though Powell and Eric have remained together, despite a separation period, and still spend holidays together, Eric is having an affair of his own — though why he doesn't just leave Powell is difficult to understand — that is continuing at the end of Cleaving.

While some of the sections where Powell writes about butchery are interesting and entertaining, for the most part the subject matter is appalling — pages of wallowing over D, pointless recaps of her travels, trying to convince the reader and herself that Eric is actually important to her — and painful to get through. But the writing is also a travesty. Powell's book is disorganized, makes countless attempts to explain things through Buffy the Vampire Slayer (fine if you're a fan, but I've never seen the show, and it seems silly for so many of your life's philosophies to come from one TV show), and includes many, many juvenile jokes and asides. Reading Cleaving feels like leafing through a sexed-up adolescent's journal, which she abandoned writing halfway through and never intended anyone to read. Stick with Julie and Julia, which, if not the best-written memoir out there, at least has an admirable premise.

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