Book Review: Cleaving by Julie Powell

by Cate on May 10, 2013

Let me preface this by saying I have a bad taste in my mouth from Julie Powell. From years ago, when she slammed bloggers left, right, and center. Quickly forgetting that blogging, as part of her ode to Julia Child, was how she struck her own claim to fame.

And on that basis, I had little to no interest in reading anything she had to write.

But I’d like to think I can have a (somewhat) open mind. When Julie & Julia was published, my sister bought it for me. And I read it. Mostly because I adore Julia Child and all her unapologetic but brilliant ways. And I loved the Julia Child sections of the book, as I knew I would.

And when the movie came out, I went to go see it, again loving the Julia Child parts.

A few weeks ago, I was at our local used book store, and happened to see a copy of Julie Powell’s second book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession. And for a whopping two bucks, I decided to give her another chance.

It was, in a word, insufferable.

In fact, the San Francisco Chronicle said that it was like watching an automobile accident in slow motion. I wanted to give up on it so many times. But I didn’t for two reasons: 1) I had hoped it would get better at some point and 2) I didn’t want to not see it through to the end.

Glutton for punishment as that might be.

As it’s Julie’s memoir, this is not fiction. Inspired by the butcher shops she frequents in New York, and in part to escape her marriage and mistakes, she decides that she wants to learn the skills of a proper butcher, so she sets out to find herself a butcher apprenticeship. She ends up at Fleisher’s in upstate New York, and is there for six months, learning the trade along with forging new friendships. Because it is quite a distance from the apartment she shares with her husband, Eric, she sublets a small place closer to the butcher shop. Since her apprenticeship comes after she had an affair on her husband (and he reciprocrated with his own dalliance), the distance, while perhaps a good thing, only serves to drive a bigger wedge between the two of them. She is living many different lives. The one at the butcher shop. The one with her husband when she comes home. And her ongoing, yes, ongoing obsession with her ex-lover, D.

The book is largely self-indulgent as the reader watches as Julie twists in the wind, not knowing what she wants, and continuing to drag her husband along for the ride. Every spare moment is spent rushing off to a quiet corner to text D, yet occupy the same space with her husband. She is perfunctorily going through the motions of being in a marriage, although it exists in tattered shell form only.

The timeline throughout the book is sometimes confusing and hard to follow and she frequently backtracks to daydream about D, and provide the reader with short memory bursts of their time together.

When her six months at the butcher shop come to a close, she doesn’t want to go home. So with her husband’s blessing, she embarks on an international journey to visit slaughterhouses, butcher shops, and the like in Argentina, the Ukraine, Africa, and more. All the while, her husband proving to be a willing, but anguished doormat.

During the book, Julie has random hook-ups with perfect strangers and engages in flirtations with anyone that will give her a second look. Peppered with moments when she decides that she really wants to be with her husband (“I love my husband down to the guts and marrow”), she acts like a confused little school girl, with her husband hanging on for the ride.

Even though D ended their affair about halfway through the book, that doesn’t stop Julie from calling him, texting him, sending him presents. Stalking him to the point that he blocks her from contacting him.

I won’t tell you how it ends, but suffice it to say that reading the book didn’t make me like her any more. And, on one hand, it gave me great empathy for her husband, but on the other hand, it made me wish he’d grow a spine and force her hand.

Skip this one.

*This is the 7th book I’ve read in my quest to read 52 books this year.
1. Believe It, Be It
2. Touch and Go
3. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
4. Here I Go Again
5. Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture
6. Drinking & Tweeting and Other Brandi Blunders

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joanne May 11, 2013 at 6:36 am

I don’t really know how one could publish a book like this and then expect to stay with their significant other. And the whole thing just disgusts me. Glad I know to avoid it now!
Joanne recently posted..Recipe: Rhubarb Curd Shortbread Tart with Fresh Strawberries


Megan June 23, 2013 at 9:32 pm

I’m glad to see I wasn’t the only one who found this book impossible to put down and the author impossible to like. She’s such a talented writer, it is a sad shame to see her talent go to waste on muck like this. As a vegetarian, I should have known better than to read it from the beginning, but as you say, I really wanted to be open minded, and I did rather love her “Julie and Julia.” The business about butchery, surprisingly, wasn’t nearly as difficult for me to read as the excruciating slow torment of her marriage that she not only subjects her husband to, but also all of her readers. I certainly hope that both husband AND lover have cut off contact with her now, after she has published this bizarre self-absorbed little tell-all. Sigh. What a disappointment.


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