The First Cut is the Deepest
I was originally interested in reading Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession by Julie Powell because I enjoyed Powell’s first book, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. But during my several reading attempts, my squeamishness got the best of me. I can’t stand the sight, or really even the thought of blood. And in the first paragraph of Cleaving, Powell is “drenched up to the elbows” in it. As a semi-to-strict vegetarian since birth, I don’t enjoy killing animals or eating meat, and even the red silhouette of a pig drawn on the book’s front cover makes me a little nauseous. Did I really want to read about pigs, and presumably other animals, being butchered? Was I even the right person to review this book?
After a few months of deliberation, I finally decided that I was the right woman for the job. Like Powell, I am completely new to butchering, so I’d be learning everything through her eyes. Just as the author used butchery to step out of her comfort zone, I would use her memoir to conquer my fear of blood and guts. And best of all, it wouldn’t actually be me doing any of the butchering. No additional animals would be harmed if I just sat down and read the thing. I’m proud to say that after a year, I made my way through Powell’s second memoir just in time for its paperback release. And I didn’t even throw up.
I understand that writing a follow-up memoir to a New York Times bestselling sensation must be daunting. On one hand, the new book needs to have a newness about it. Julie Powell hasn’t been sitting in her kitchen cooking more Julia Child recipes for the past four years, has she? On the other hand, the new memoir should contain the same essence as the first book because it is, after all, another autobiographical book about the author. The Julie Powell I love in Julie and Julia is a dreamer—a slightly mousy and self-deprecating secretary with the desire to spend a year cooking extravagant meals for herself and her wildly supportive husband, Eric.
Sadly, I’m not sure where that Julie Powell went. In the pages of Cleaving, she’s nowhere to be found (except for a couple of Buffy the Vampire Slayer references, which are curiously present in both books). Although the author still has a love of food and cooking, Powell and Eric have grown apart after years of marriage, adding a deeper, matrimonial meaning to the book’s title. With no explanation whatsoever, the reader is introduced to a new Julie Powell—one who sleeps with anonymous men behind Eric’s back and pines over her lover, D. What happened? Although D is mentioned in the book at least as often as Eric, he eventually stops returning her desperate phone calls, text messages and e-mails. And as if Powell’s life needs any more shaking up, she moves into a one-room apartment near Kingston, New York, to work as an apprentice in a butcher’s shop. She provides the reader with no explanation for this sudden life change, except that she had to “follow the whisper” of (I’m guessing, because it’s not explained) her subconscious mind. Eric, who remains patient, stable and supportive although he knows he’s being cheated on, becomes a foil for Powell and her chaotic decisions.
The chapters detailing Powell’s apprenticeship are laden with butchering jargon, which is sometimes enlightening, but usually confusing. Powell writes about removing the shank (which I had to look up online to find out is the shin) of a cow: “I cut through the thick rope of tendon where it emerges from the muscle and stretches, exposed, to meet the bony knob of the shank’s lower end, with one sawing slice away from me.” It may be because I know almost nothing about meat, but I could have used a diagram or two to help me understand the intricacy of the cuts, which blurred together when I wasn’t sure which part of the animal she was slicing.
Powell alternates tales of long days at the butcher shop with stories of her shattered love life. Both experiences are messy, and the author writes about using butchery as a way to “[bring] order to the chaos” by taking something big and sloppy and organizing it into smaller, categorized pieces. I don’t see a lot of other similarities, however, between her marriage and butchery, except the book’s clever title. Powell finally realizes that she’s using her apprenticeship as a way to hide from her life, but instead of using this knowledge to get her life back in order, she flees further from her failing marriage, and spends another hundred pages inexplicably traveling to Argentina, Ukraine and Tanzania to see how animals are butchered in other countries. As a method for saving a relationship, butchery seems ineffective; when she returns home, she gets back in touch with her ex-lover and continues to treat her unbelievably supportive husband like dirt.
I enjoyed Julie and Julia because I identified with Powell. I saw her as a likeable, sweet friend I would enjoy going to lunch or a movie with. I envisioned Powell as someone who struggled to make ends meet and dreamed of finding success. Instead, Powell relishes in telling the reader, graphically, about the affairs she leads behind the back of her sweet, well-intentioned husband Maybe my assessment of her character was wrong to begin with, and I’m okay with that. If the author had decided to break up her marriage and move to Tanzania with her boyfriend, at least I would have felt satisfied about following her for three hundred pages. But after the entire journey, Powell is still emotionally on page three. The only thing that seems to change is the Buffy quotes—by the end of the book, Powell has moved on to the gospel of Veronica Mars reruns.
Powell’s bare-all attitude in Cleaving is not enough to push the author over the edge of one-hit-wonders. Her sudden and unexplained love of butchery feels like a stunt that the author has manufactured in an attempt to produce another bestselling memoir. Because Powell doesn’t offer any reasons why her life is taking these wild turns, the course feels preplanned and forced. First, she’ll pair her destroyed love life with tales of hacking up animals. Next, she’ll take a trio of international trips. These steps make more sense in a book proposal than as a real-life journey. Instead, it feels like Powell is dragging me around because it worked once before.
As it turns out, the slaughtering scenes didn’t bother my inner vegetarian as much as the abundance of graphic sex scenes bugged my inner romantic. Perhaps I could have handled them better had they not been written with the gloating swagger of a teenage boy. I could have even stomached the excessive details about the affair if Powell had revealed an ounce of self-reflection. When I glanced at the “Acknowledgements” section in the back of Cleaving, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who felt squeamish about Powell’s newest endeavor. “Thanks to my family,” Powell writes. “most of whom have declined to read this book, but in the most cheerful, loving way possible.”
Books mentioned in this column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.