Julie Powell’s second memoir (a follow-up to the massively successful Julie & Julia, which also spawned a film) deals with obsessions much in the same way that her first one did. Instead of cooking her way through a massive tome, though, Powell takes up the practice of butchery. As an apprentice at Fleischer’s (a butcher shop in upstate NY that is apparently a huge deal in the locavore movement), she learns how to lose herself in the details of breaking down sides of beef and boning a pig. Her interest in butchery is in part an attempt to distract herself from her other obsession: the end of a love affair with a man who was decidedly not her husband, Eric. Trying to find meaning in the meat only distracts Powell for so long, though and when that runs out, she might just have to look at the meaning in her own life.
This is not an easy review to write, simply because I have a lot of thoughts about this book and want to do it justice. Since its release in 2009 (the release was actually pushed back until after the film debuted, a move that was both shrewd and well-advised), Cleaving has garnered a lot of negative press. This is disappointing, not because I don’t think that some of the critical reviews have valid points (which we’ll get to), but because so much of the scathing vitriol aimed at this book is not about Powell’s writing ability but about her morality. Which, let’s face it, shouldn’t have anything to do with judging the book’s content, but when you have people decrying Powell’s values and they haven’t even read the book, well, it’s probably to be expected.
My issues with this book (and they are many) have nothing to do with Powell’s morality. In fact, I commend her on her willingness to lay bare her many flaws and indiscretions. It’s not an easy thing to do, and Powell has done it very publicly. Whether or not Powell is a moral person is not the issue here. The problem with Cleaving is that it’s a really uneven book, and Powell comes across as a dark, deeply damaged person who also happens to be an incredibly unreliable narrator.
Powell splits the book into three parts, focusing on her affair and the slow breakdown of her marriage, her apprenticeship at Fleischer’s (which is, apparently, a really big deal in the New York locavore movement), and her wayward travels to three randomly selected countries (Argentina, Ukraine, and Tanzania) to learn about their use of meat. The three parts of the book are disjointed on their own and don’t seem to gel when put together, either. The stories Powell relates don’t feel like a collection of essays, but they aren’t a single cohesive piece, either.
This indecisiveness about what her memoir is actually about makes more sense when one looks at Powell’s overall tone and content. It isn’t clear what Powell wants from the reader as she revels in details about her affair with D. Does she even want sympathy from her readers as she angsts about how exciting the sex is with D and how much pain she’s causing her husband? Does she desire sympathy or empathy but doesn’t want to ask for it? The fact that she can’t even get a handle on what she’s getting out of the affair or her marriage isn’t surprising when one realizes that Powell can’t even narrow down what kind of emotional response, exactly, her work is supposed to evoke from the reader.
Everything about the memoir feels flimsily constructed. The metaphor that Powell uses to tie butchery and love together–using overwrought phrases about sinew and ligaments and bone–never quite work, and often feel quite forced. Of course, there’s the carnality of sex & meat connection, but it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow the lengthy descriptions of rough-ish sex with D. Too often, Powell wanders into purple prose territory, and it’s then that the reading experience becomes a little bit unpleasant.
Make no mistake, this was (for me, at least) an unpleasant reading experience. Not for the squeamish (this applies to those who shy away from descriptive passages about sex as well as descriptive passages about tearing flesh away from bone and being covered in animal blood), it wasn’t Powell’s actions in and out of the bedroom that made this uncomfortable for me. As much as I struggled with the overall content of the memoir, it was Powell’s personality that was the hardest aspect to take in. Often callous and overly-pleased with herself, Powell’s smugness about her affair and ability to get away with it while also staying married was like watching a train wreck that you want to look away from but can’t. This is not a book about meat so much as it is a testament to how incredible her affair was.
Honestly, that would be acceptable if it was what Powell had set out to do, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Throughout the book, one can’t help but feel that Powell is aware that she should be feeling guilt (or that she’s expected to) about her treatment of Eric (and D, for that matter, as she stalks him for the better part of the middle of the book), but that what she really feels is something closer to a complete lack of such guilt. There is no insight given about her indiscretions, nor is there any sort of perspective about how her actions impact others. This is a story that would be best told with some distance, and the overall feel of the memoir is that it was written very quickly, while it was happening. Powell’s lack of guilt and almost bragging about her exploits is irritating enough, but it gets worse when the reader realizes that the story isn’t even very interesting—in fact, it’s pretty boring.
It’s not all bad, though. Powell can be an engaging writer, and she often is, with whip-smart observations about the world and pop culture in particular. It’s clear that she has a sincere interest in butchery and has a true work ethic when it comes to becoming an apprentice. She takes an easy tone when she writes, and it almost feels like a girlfriend telling you details about her life over drinks. Almost.
The last thing I want to mention is the title. Cleaving has several meanings, and it’s clear that Powell meant to play on that. In addition to the traditional understanding of the word, which many of us associate with cutting or severing, cleaving can also mean penetrating. This is fitting, when one considers how much time Powell devotes to talking about the more salacious aspects of her relationship with D. However, when the title is the most interesting and clever thing about your book, one has to wonder.
Fans of Powell’s first book are likely to be left confused or angry by this one. Not for the faint of heart, Cleaving doesn’t live up to its potential. I’m interested to see what Powell does next, but this one didn’t work for me.
Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession by Julie Powell. Little, Brown & Company, 2009. Library copy.