When the film version of Julie & Julia hit screens in August, Little, Brown, the publishers of Julie Powell’s second book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession, announced that its release would be pushed back to December. According to Little Brown, the delay had nothing to do with Cleaving‘s content, which concerned Powell’s adulterous betrayal of her husband, Eric, whom Julie & Julia (in blog, book, and film) painted in golden, saintly strokes.
But it’s hard to read Powell’s second book without imagining the film’s target audience struggling to rectify their perky (if whiney) screen heroine with the Julie Powell of Cleaving, the one who dispenses gut-churning descriptions of phone sex with her lover (“I had nothing to go on but…the quickening of that wet slapping sound that barely reached the receiver), revels in the bruises he gives her (“The first time he slapped my face…I was bound up in trusses I’d given him”), and later tries to exorcise her demons through a joyless, anonymous pick-up (“What a pretty little whore you are”).
Cleaving kicks off in the aftermath of Powell’s earlier success, when, she writes, “[i]t was confusing to find myself, so soon after that whirlwind year came to a close, more or less where I’d been before.” Powell also finds herself entangled in a torrid, relentlessly selfish affair with an old friend and onetime lover she calls D, something that makes her feel a bit guilty and also in need of distraction from her distraction.
So she runs off to Fleisher’s, the renowned Kingston, N.Y., butcher shop, to learn how to break down meat. Powell’s at this point extremely long-suffering husband is understandably confused, but as Powell makes repeated metaphorical connections between separating tissue from bone and herself from her lover, it’s easy to draw the cynical conclusion that, from the perspective of a writer looking for her second book, she knew exactly what she was doing.
How much you’ll enjoy Cleaving depends on how sympathetic you are to Powell’s dilemma, which, when it comes down to it, is a bit much to swallow: the act of trying to choose between one’s bottomlessly loving husband and one’s snakey-sounding lover, all while having the financial freedom to hang out with butchers just for the hell of it, is accompanied by the sound of the world’s most miniscule violin.
How much you’ll enjoy the book also depends on how much you’ll enjoy Powell’s voice, which is by turns solipsistic, grating, endlessly self-indulgent, and, worst of all, boring. It’s also at times unexpectedly insightful and bracingly honest: Powell certainly doesn’t give herself a free pass for her behavior, even as she eagerly obsesses over it. The problem is, honesty and insight can also be found in almost anybody’s diary, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that Cleaving would have worked better if had remained in the drawer of a bedside table.
For a memoir (or for that matter any narrative) to really succeed, you have to be a willing participant on the protagonist’s journey, and Powell isn’t someone you’d even want to follow to the corner bodega. She’s an untrustworthy tour guide, one who periodically leaves her reader stranded while she wanders off to stare deeply into her navel, ignoring the surrounding landscape. The Fleisher’s gang seems like a likeable and colorful bunch, but here they’re described mainly through their hair (a frizzy halo here, a porn-star mustache there), and their voices are smothered by Powell’s deafening internal dialogue.
Similarly, in the last third of Cleaving–which follows Powell to Argentina, Ukraine, and Tanzania in search of fellow butchers and a suitable ending to her book–the descriptions of the people she meets seem deployed mainly in service of furthering Powell’s quest to absolve herself of wrongdoing. When she’s nearly raped by a man in Tanzania, Powell writes that his subsequent persecution “was like someone else could see that he was the one who deserved to be punished. Not me, for once.”
Part of Julie & Julia‘s strength was the way in which Child, through her book, absorbed Powell in a subject larger and more interesting than the mundanity of her own life. In Cleaving, almost nothing, be it a hulking cow carcass or a trip to Africa, can wrench Powell’s gaze away from herself. Any butcher knows that a dissection calls for a good, sharp knife. The instrument Powell’s wielding is depressingly dull. She saws and hacks away, leaving us with a bloody mess.