In the immortal words of Michael Bluth: “I don’t know what I expected.”
I knew what I was getting into with this, I really did. It is a well-documented fact that Julie Powell is a delusional asshole (if you need a good laugh, look at the reviews for Cleaving, her second book – they all essentially boil down to “Wow, so turns out Julie Powell is horrible”), and even if I hadn’t been aware of this, there’s the fact that whenever I watch the movie adaptation of Julie and Julia, I skip the Julie parts because even Amy Adams, who is literal human sunshine, cannot make that woman appealing in any sense of the word.
Actually, the whole reason I decided to get this book from the library is because the movie was on TV the other day, and I got morbidly curious about Julie Powell’s side of the story. I had already read Julia Child’s My Life in France, which was the inspiration for the Julia parts of the movie, so I decided that it only made sense to complete the experience and read Powell’s book.
Powell wastes no time letting her readers know exactly what kind of monster she is. On page eight (Eight! We’re not even into the double-digit pages yet!) we get to see Powell’s version of an Oprah “Ah-ha moment.” Basically, Powell is waiting in the subway one day and witnesses:
“…a plug of a woman, her head of salt-and-pepper hair shorn into the sort of crew cut they give the mentally disabled, who had plopped down on the concrete directly behind me.
…The loon started smacking her forehead with the heel of her palm. ‘Fuck!’ she yelled. ‘Fuck! FUCK!’ …The loon placed both palms down on the concrete in front of her and – CRACK! – smacked her forehead hard on the ground.
…It was only once I was in the car, squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, the lot of us hanging by one hand from the overhead bar like slaughtered cows on the trundling train, that it came to me – as if some omnipotent God of City Dwellers were whispering the truth in my ear – that the only two reasons I hadn’t joined right in with the loon with the gray crew cut, beating my head and screaming ‘Fuck!’ in primal syncopation, were (1) I’d be embarrassed and (2) I didn’t want to get my cute vintage suit any dirtier than it already was. Performance anxiety and a dry-cleaning bill; those were the only things keeping me from stark raving lunacy.”
So in addition to being an asshole, Julie Powell also might be a sociopath, because who does that? How much of a selfish, raging narcissist do you have to become in order to watch what is clearly a mentally ill person having a disturbing episode, and your first response is, “Ugh, same“?! And then you record the scene in your memoir and frame it as some kind of profound breakthrough moment for you? Gee, I’m so glad that person had a mental breakdown and seriously injured themselves so you could have an epiphany, Julie Powell.
(you may be wondering: how does this experience lead to Powell deciding to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking? I read the damn book and I couldn’t even tell you.)
So anyway, Powell starts working her way through Julia Child’s cookbook, keeping a blog about her progress. (This means we get a delightfully dated scene where Powell’s husband suggests she start a blog, and Julie’s like, what the hell is a blog? 2002 was a simpler time.) As many reviewers have pointed out, the blog-to-memoir transition was done pretty clumsily, with scenes happening out of sequence and a nonsensical structure – Powell will start a chapter about some recipe she was working on, and then break for a lengthy flashback that has almost no relation to the beginning of the chapter. It’s very difficult to follow the progress she’s making through the cookbook, and all the flashbacks and timeline-skipping meant that I never had any clear idea of where I was in the project, unless Powell directly referenced the date.
Along with the messy structure, another big issue with the book is that Powell is…not a great writer. She’s clearly trying to be self-depreciating, and make us think that she’s rolling her eyes right along with us whenever we read a scene of her throwing a tantrum about mayonnaise – but the problem is that I wasn’t shaking my head and smiling in bemusement, like Powell wants me to. I was just thinking, “you are horrible, and telling me that you know you’re being horrible doesn’t help.” Powell doesn’t have the writing skill to redeem herself in the narrative, and on top of that, her prose is often practically unreadable. Try this excerpt on for size, and see if it makes any goddamn sense to you on the first reading:
“My mother is a clean freak, my father a dirty bird, semi-reformed. Between them, they have managed to raise one child who by all accounts could not care less about basic cleanliness, but whose environs and person are always somehow above reproach, and another child who sees as irrevocable humiliation any imputation of less than impeccable housekeeping or hygiene, and yet, regardless of near-constant near-hysteria on the subject, is almost always an utter mess.”
Well, now I guess we know what it would sound like if Charlotte Bronte wrote all her books drunk. It made me long for the effortless, evocative writing Julia Child presented in My Life in France – her description of the proper technique for scrambling eggs is practically poetry.
And that is what really sets Julie Powell apart from Julia Child: Child loved to cook, and Powell does not. Her project, and every recipe she describes, are never presented as anything other than a chore she has to get through. There is no joy in Powell’s book, no love for the dishes she prepares. And frankly, a lot of Powell’s book is pretty gross. Her kitchen is always a disaster scene, with dirty surfaces and piles of unwashed dishes. Which, fine – you’re working a full-time job and cooking gourmet meals every night, obviously you’re going to slack off on cleaning. But then Powell discovers that there are maggots living under her dish rack, and I was fucking done.
With Julie and Julia, Julie Powell has managed to do the unthinkable: she wrote a cooking memoir that didn’t make me feel hungry, not once in three hundred pages. I’m pretty sure that’s a capital offense in some countries.
Verdict: one out of five stars