Books

What's Wrong With Julie Powell's 'Cleaving'

The cover of Julie Powell's 'Cleaving.'

As you may recall, I offered what I called a "contrarian defense" of Julie & Julia — one that I think applies equally to both the book and the movie. I thought it was a cool project, I thought she had something useful to say about teaching and learning and food, and I definitely thought — and still think — that because she got a book deal and a movie deal and made a lot of money, she was rung up for a lot of generic Blog Sins that have nothing to do with her and are not her fault. I wasn't bothered by her chatty style, I wasn't bothered by the fact that she swears (join the club), and I thoroughly enjoyed both the book and the movie, and found neither particularly presumptuous.

That said, I found her latest book, Cleaving, one of the most unpleasant reading experiences I've ever had. Not uncomfortable, not challenging, not in-your-face, not too real. Unpleasant to read, ultimately pretty boring except when it's irritating, and a book from which I took nothing away at all except perhaps a clarification of my own sense of what I do and don't want to read.

Three hundred pages I wish I hadn't read, after the jump.

Here's what the book is about: just as Powell was finishing writing Julie & Julia (the book), she entered into an affair with an old boyfriend which lasted for about two years. It didn't take her husband very long to figure it out, and after it became clear that (1) she wasn't willing to stop, and (2) she nevertheless wanted to remain married, and (3) he wasn't willing to leave her (for reasons that are extremely difficult to understand), he also wound up involved with someone else.

So in this book, everything goes bad, and she heads off to apprentice in a butcher shop. There's supposed to be something very earthy and meaningful about meat-cutting, and the bloody brutality of it all is supposed to stand in for various emotional upheavals.

But mostly, the book is about how incredibly awesome her affair was. If you flip through the book and find a passage where she is talking about being happy, excited, turned on, passionate, moved, soulful, or something of that nature, you can be just about certain it is about the lover, not the husband. She wants you to know, in particular, how great the sex was, in highly specific detail.

When you write a memoir, it seems to me you have to ask this question: Why would anyone care?

Unlike those who threw accusations of solipsism at Julie Powell years ago, I understood perfectly why she thought people would care about the Julia Child project. That was really interesting to me — the cooking, the differences in techniques, the struggles to procure ingredients people don't use anymore, the tenacity it takes to do something that daunting, the way you battle frustration.

But honestly, for me to want to read a 300-page book about someone else's personal life, she'd better have an interesting perspective on it. And perspective is what Cleaving doesn't have, perhaps because it seems to have been written with great haste (the timeline dictates as much, really) as it was happening, without the benefit of the kind of distance that a story like this requires. It's just tell, tell, tell. Tell about how much you liked being slapped around, tell about the racy texting, tell about how you literally stalked the guy, following him around trying to give him a gift after he broke it off, and mailing said gift to him after he made it clear he didn't want it.

With all the explicit stuff in the book (her account of having anonymous sex with a stranger seems to be getting the most attention), let me tell you where she lost me for good. She tells a story about being out in public with the guy, called "D" through most of the book, with whom she's having the affair. By this time, she was somewhat famous, and a fan came up to her on the street and gushed about loving her work. The fan looked at D, assuming he was the beloved husband she had written about extensively. And D smoothly took the fan's hand and said yes, he was her husband Eric. Here's how Powell tells it:

I almost laugh in dizzy relief, right in the woman's face. I must look completely dazed, with hectic eyes and a plastered-on smile. D's no wild-eyed rebel, doesn't race hot rods or start fistfights in bars or snort lines off strippers' asses ... (much ... that I know of). But he has a way of, with just a sly smile, a tiny lie, making me feel gleefully wild. I am trembling; I can't wait to get him home.

I can't really explain why, but her glee at watching D make a fool out of an adoring fan while also making a fool out of Eric was the moment I knew she wasn't getting me back. There's no perspective in the way the story is told, no sense that in retrospect, she understands that this was enormously disrespectful both to the woman she deceived and to the husband she's still married to now. Maybe she feels that, but it doesn't come through in the book. What comes through in the book is that this was pretty great, and really funny, and that this is the kind of wild, adventurous behavior — lying, apparently — that made D so irresistible. My sense was that, as in the rest of the book, she kind of knows she should feel bad, but she doesn't.

Can I speak to how she feels? Of course not. But I can tell you what the narrator of the book projects, and the answer is: not actual guilt so much as awareness and resentment of the fact that she's expected to feel guilt.

Don't get me wrong; it's not that you can't do regrettable or dishonest things and write about them in a good memoir. But for me to enjoy it, that takes reflection. It requires that you not appear to be bragging about the worst things you did and how exciting they were, while insisting that really, you feel terrible. In fact, you could write a memoir in which you explain why you do not feel bad about your affair, and if that seemed to be your authentic perspective, maybe that would be interesting. But when your internal struggles seem to be the ones you think you're supposed to be having more than ones you are actually having, then the book feels inauthentic and dull.

Here, the conflicts she says she has, or had, aren't consistent with anything she did, or is doing. She claims to feel terrible and embarrassed and to regret enormously everything she did that hurt her husband. The problem is that those claims ring false in light of the fact that ... you know, she wrote the book. It all becomes terribly meta, but when you read her statements about how her husband feels about having her write at length about her affair, she says things like this, in Slate:

Eric is naturally treading very carefully in the world right about now. We talked a lot about me writing this book, and I would never have published it without his blessing; couldn't have, legally, even if I were so callous as to choose to. Eric is a naturally reserved person in the best of times. He's also an extremely courageous and generous man. He's not exactly tripping through the daisies this week, but he is understanding enough to know what this book means to me, and what about it is important.

As she's describing it, that's not his blessing. That's grudging, pained agreement, which, frankly, she describes her husband doing quite a bit in the book as well. If you know your husband is a naturally reserved person, why would you even ask him whether it's okay for you to write in detail about your sex life without him? You already know it isn't; you're only asking if he will stand in your way. If you know he's a private person, why would you put him in the position of saying no to having his family and his friends read about how hot it was when the other guy bit you? You want, in a situation like this, to review the book and not talk about the person, but here, if Julie Powell the author contradicts Julie Powell the narrator, what's a person to do?

I have no idea, after reading Cleaving, what Powell thinks "is important about it," as she put it to Slate. She also told Slate on Monday that if you don't like this book, it says more about you than it does about the book. So be it, I suppose.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.