Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book Review: Cleaving [2009]

Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession is Julie Powell's follow-up to the wildly popular Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (which I will confess up front that I have not read, though I did see the movie). There was a slight tremor in the publishing and book blogging world when the release of Cleaving was delayed so as not to coincide with the release of the Julie and Julia movie, allegedly because the publisher didn't want to flood the market with Powell's books beyond the planned movie tie-in editions. I thought then, and believe even more firmly now, that Cleaving was delayed because someone, somewhere was afraid that its subject matter would have a negative impact on movie ticket sales. I actually think the reverse might be true, but all of this is simply to point out that there was a lot of hype surrounding the book by the time it was finally published in late 2009. As I write this review, I will attempt to ignore this and address the book, and Powell's voice, on its own merits.

The title, Cleaving, is by far my favorite part about the book. It has a clever double-meaning embedded in one (rather old-fashioned) word, given that the two-fold subject of the book is Powell's infidelity and her introduction to the craft of butchery. Throughout the first portion of the book, entitled "Apprentice," Powell makes (sometimes strained) connections between her training as a butcher and her breakup with the enigmatic "D":
To clean a skirt steak . . . It's a time-consuming process, slicing gingerly at all the stringy bits, judging just how clean is clean enough . . . It takes me a while of picking off the bloody bits that remain to realize that I'm not the tearer, but the thing that's been torn away. And I pick and I pick and I pick at these connecting shreds that cling to me. [pp. 54-59]
I hate to say it, but Powell's prose sometimes reminded me of Pamie's unsent teenage love letters. There is so much painful, dramatically worded honesty strewn about the book that I often felt as if I had accidentally cracked open a personal diary that should have remained buried at the bottom of a hope chest.

After the success of Julie and Julia, Powell received a phone call from "someone I'd not heard from in years, a half-remembered murmur coming across the line, sparking uncomfortable memories of a handful of long-ago nights I'd nearly succeeded in forgetting." This person, whom Powell spends the bulk of the text simply calling D, returns to her life and sweeps her into his bed, despite the existence of her mild-mannered and supportive husband, Eric. The details of the affair, and its dissolution, are parceled out between scenes of butchery. After she concludes her apprenticeship, Powell (still feeling restless), leaves the country to visit famous meat-tourism destinations of the world.

Just to be clear, I don't have any problem with adultery as a subject of this book. Heck, it's refreshing that Powell is offering a female perspective, particularly from someone as internet-famous as she is, on the nitty-gritty of an extramarital affair (or at least its brutal aftermath). What I do take issue with is the way she represents herself: as helpless and completely lacking in agency as D has his way with her. She is equally responsible, yet time and time again she refutes her agency and absolves herself of guilt. She's an adult who has made certain choices, and she should accept the responsibility. Similarly, I have no problem (even though I'm a staunch vegetarian) with the many descriptions of meat, entrails, blood, etc., but it was hard to feel at some point that they were relevant to anything. If I'd wanted to read that much about joints and boning (see what I did there?), I would have checked out Practical Meat Cutting and Merchandising. There were recipes, too, but I largely ignored them. At some point, it became so difficult to want to continue reading (because of Powell's attitude, rather than her subject matter) that I stopped--for four months. Even though I was past the apprenticeship part and into the part where Powell wandered the globe in search of herself/to get away from the mess she had created at home, I had used up my reserve of goodwill such that it took that long to force myself to finish.

Apparently I have a lot to say about this book, and it's true that this review has been in the works for a very long time. I will attempt to make some conclusion other than *headdesk*. To borrow a word from Simon Cowell, the book as a whole reads as more "indulgent" than "intriguing." Julie and Julia was successful, I think, because it had a clear goal: cook all of Julia Child's recipes in one year. It had an anchor: Julia Child. It had a narrative arc that took Powell from her humdrum life to this revelation: "Julia taught me what it takes to find your way in the world . . . It's joy." Unfortunately, Cleaving has none of these things. It has only Powell, who comes off as a woman who has no idea what she wants and is determined to find something that gives her an elusive feeling she is searching for. At the end of the book, she is officially a butcher, and nominally back with her husband, but there is no feeling of closure, or satisfaction, or revelation as there is in her previous book. She has experienced several things, over the course of two years and 300 pages, but has she actually learned anything? It's not clear.

Grade: C-

Dead Mother: No
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Amy said...

I actually found the butchery to be the most fascinating part of the book. The description was just gratuitous enough to satiate the lover of all gross things (or what my roommate like to call a 12 year old boy) that lives inside me while also being mildly educational on a culinary level.

I totally agree with you on taking issue with Powell never owning her active role in the infidelity. On top of that, I was really bothered by the lack of Eric as a real and active character. I mean, I understand that it was Powell's memoir, but D was so much more fleshed out and Eric seemed to be merely a shadow. I suppose it makes a lot of sense, considering the circumstances, but it just bugged the bejeezus out of me.

All in all, an excellent review. Very much worth the excrutiating wait.

booksNyarn said...

And I thank you for the post. Like I said earlier, I saw two copies sitting on the shelf of the local library, but after Amy's comments and now yours, I really don't think I could get through it. I think that people have a right to their self-indulgent activities in Life, but to be subjected to it? Nah.

Helgagrace said...

When you are reading something and frequently having a reaction of "am I really supposed to be reading this?" . . . that's when you know you should probably stop reading.

Amy, you are so right about Eric. At the end of the acknowledgments, she does toss out a bone to both Eric and Damian, saying she knows how hard it must be to have "someone else write your story."

I could, I suppose, re-read for the nuances of the butchery parts (which I had mostly forgotten by the time I finally got around to writing the review). Or not. I have a stack of so many good things to read, that I'm not going to waste another minute thinking about Cleaving.