Done well, memoirs about love and food go together like steak and martinis. Meals are a perfect application for the “show, don’t tell” directive, from proposal soufflé to break-up pastina. These foodoirs have become a successful subset, one part chick lit mixed with one part chicken lit.
Julie Powell water-skied to notoriety on Julia Child’s apron, following every recipe in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” for a blog she called The Julie/Julia Project. The blog became a memoir, “Julie & Julia,” which in turn became a movie, the momentum of which whipped both Child’s and Powell’s books to the heights of the best-seller lists.
The publishers of Powell’s second memoir wisely waited until December to release it, lest they freak out book-buying admirers of “Julie & Julia’s” plucky co-star. “Cleaving” promises marriage, meat and obsession, but the object of said obsession is not a standing rib roast. It’s a man she calls D, who likes trussing our anti-heroine and covering her in bruises before sending her home to cook for her husband. The woman who came across as simply whiny and self-absorbed in the film reveals a dark, damaged persona. Nora Ephron won’t be touching this one with a 20-foot baguette.
Powell and her “long-suffering husband,” Eric, are really suffering now. Unsatisfied by her new career, the author (“just call me Julie ‘Steamroller’ Powell”) — whose motto is “Want. Take. Have.” — has a two-year affair with D. His forceful wanting/taking/having of her instills the confidence that being played by Amy Adams in the movie apparently did not. “It was when he smilingly roughed me up that I finally felt fierce, strong — emancipated,” she writes of his first smack.
But wait. It gets more abject. Eric knows. So he has an affair, too. Powell relishes punishing him with kindness. “Have fun,” she texts him. “Come home whenever you like.” After D ends things (“You know it’s over when he’d rather show you ‘Team America’ than his penis,” he had warned her months before flipping open his laptop in bed on the fateful day), she resorts to cyberstalking. Powell’s not kidding about the “obsession” part: she pathetically texts and e-mails into the ether for almost a year, then fleshes her longing into a book that doesn’t spare the reader a single full-frontal flashback.
Eventually, she seeks a numbing distraction, something to reroute her self-destructive, addictive tendencies. How about butchering? Butchers are hot, Powell reasons, ahead of the current craze for men with cleavers. They are “more certain of meat than I’ve ever been about anything.” She apprentices at Fleisher’s, a cult butcher shop in Kingston, N.Y. (where I shop), and learns how to take things apart in the hope of putting her life back together. Or not. Rather than assuage her pathologically adoring husband, she wills her BlackBerry to buzz after sending D texts like: “Just had the worst sex in the world with a total stranger to try to get you out of my head. It didn’t work.”
Meaty bits over, she still can’t take the cleaver to her miserable marriage. She travels to Argentina, Ukraine and Tanzania, a 100-page exercise in self-indulgent writing, in which she dwells on how attractive the locals find her and how much Malbec, Cognac or goat’s blood she can drink. It makes the reader miss the circus of Fleisher’s. More meat, less obsession, please. Sorry, Hollywood: there’s no happy-ending resolution with longer-suffering Eric, either.
Despite all this, Powell can be an engaging writer. Fast, funny and observant — though too busy steamrolling to Google facts — she’s your mean best friend sending instant messages that make you snort at your desk. Her reliance on snark and pop-cultural references is cheap, but her sincere interest in butchery and love for the Fleisher’s crew bring the book’s slasher scenes to life. If you don’t know how to break down a side of beef or debone a turkey, you might be able to figure it out after working your way through “Cleaving.” The squeamish — morally and otherwise — should read elsewhere. In her acknowledgments, Powell thanks her editor for reminding her that there is such a thing as too much information. And how.