Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, And Obsession
On the surface of things, Julie Powell has lived every aspiring writer’s dream over the past few years. Her blog, about her attempts to cook all the way through Julia Child’s MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING in one year, was published and went on to become a bestselling book (JULIE & JULIA) and was recently made into a high-profile feature film that’s getting plenty of Oscar buzz. Suddenly, Julie was propelled from the anonymity of a cubicle dweller to the kind of acclaim most people only dream about.
Well, not exactly. It turns out that Julie’s marriage, which was chronicled so lovingly and affectionately in JULIE & JULIA, was actually becoming something of a nightmare just as her professional dreams were coming true. Both Julie and her husband, Eric, conducted affairs with other people. In Julie’s case, her affair with a man known for most of the book simply as “D” became increasingly obsessive and damaging. Both spouses knew what was going on but were unable to talk about their problems, both clinging to the security of each other and seething with anger and sadness about the state of their marriage.
In the midst of this deeply confusing and conflicted time, Julie decides to embark on another culinary adventure, this time as an apprentice butcher at a family-owned butcher shop in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. Julie’s apprenticeship at Fleisher’s is a chance for her to forget her messy domestic life while she’s elbow-deep in work that, by necessity, requires her entire concentration. She and Eric also begin a trial separation, and Julie rents a small apartment near the butcher and stays there instead of returning home to Queens several nights a week.
Julie’s education in butchery is not for the squeamish or the devotedly vegetarian; she describes her work in painstaking, sometimes appropriately gory detail and offers up plenty of simple recipes that will delight carnivores. All this, however, takes place in the context of Julie’s struggles to figure out what’s going on (and going wrong) in the personal life she’s tried --- and often failed --- to leave behind. Each chapter presents a sort of example of “meat as metaphor,” as Julie finds lessons --- or more often questions --- in a painful cut, a sharp knife, a dangerous saw.
The liveliest aspects of CLEAVING are Powell’s depictions of the behind-the-scenes work at the butcher shop --- not only the dangerous, complicated work but also the good-natured competition and camaraderie among its colorful practitioners. When Julie heads off to Argentina, the Ukraine and Tanzania to broaden her education about meat, the memoir loses a bit of its sharp edge; readers, like Julie, may find themselves longing to be back in the oddly comforting realm of Fleisher’s back room.
CLEAVING is the kind of memoir that will prompt strong reactions in virtually every reader. Some may become irate at Julie’s matter-of-fact approach to infidelity and may lose sympathy for her as they read her unabashed confessions; others may welcome her honesty about the challenges of marriage. Some may be disgusted by her descriptions of the slaughterhouse and the cutting table; others may be enthralled. Although some readers may have a hard time even finishing Powell’s surprising follow-up to JULIE & JULIA, virtually everyone will have something to say about it, making it a perfect choice for what’s sure to be a lively, if controversial, book club discussion.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 5, 2011