Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession
Julie Powell thought cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the craziest thing she’d ever do–until she embarked on the voyage recounted in her new memoir, CLEAVING.
Her marriage challenged by an insane, irresistible love affair, Julie decides to leave town and immerse herself in a new obsession: butchery. She finds her way to Fleischer’s, a butcher shop where she buries herself in the details of food. She learns how to break down a side of beef and French a rack of ribs–tough, physical work that only sometimes distracts her from thoughts of afternoon trysts.
The camaraderie at Fleischer’s leads Julie to search out fellow butchers around the world–from South America to Europe to Africa. At the end of her odyssey, she has learned a new art and perhaps even mastered her unruly heart.
A Perfect Storm
On the surface, Cleaving looked like a perfect book. I love reading about marriages and also extreme challenges. Julie Powell’s writing is often hilarious, as evidenced by the wild success of Julie and Julia.
But Cleaving is dark, a butcher’s dissection that reveals the ugliest parts of desire and marriage. I think it’s an important memoir, in some ways, but probably not what most readers wanted from Powell.
The Dark Parts
First, let’s tackle the undeniable issues with the book.
The timeline is muddled. From the very first pages, Powell is trying to build suspense, withholding information and hinting at her affair without addressing it. The time-jumping creates confusion and the author’s heavy hand is too obvious.
The butchery descriptions are graphic. Butchery is a graphic job, but many readers (myself included) won’t be enthused by descriptions of tendons, cold raw meat, and tough physical work.
The conceit doesn’t work. This is the core issue, I think. Cleaving is meant to be an Eat, Pray, Love. And it succeeds, in ways I’ll get to. But it lacks proof of healing. The final chapters reveal some personal growth, but not enough for the reader to feel satisfied with Powell’s journey.
It’s a dark book. I found little to none of it humorous.
I do, however, think that Cleaving has value. If you read the Amazon reviews for the book, you’ll see lots of readers claiming that Powell is messed up, crazy, pathetic, embarrassing, immoral, etc. And probably all of those things are true.
But, to some extent, aren’t we all? Maybe not to the extent of carrying on an extended affair. But haven’t we all done something we’re ashamed of? Haven’t we looked back at parts of our lives and wondered how we could have ever been drawn into that? Maybe not. Maybe some people don’t relate to that at all.
But I do. And I value the honesty of Cleaving. Certainly, it was painful to read. I think it’s not a well-crafted book. But I do think it’s honest. I think many, many people would recognize their own illogical thoughts and actions in Powell’s account. And I think there’s value in normalizing those–not saying they’re good or right, but recognizing that they are common. When these types of addictions and unhealthy patterns are hidden and secret, they can’t be improved. We can’t support or challenge each other.
So huge kudos to Powell for being brave enough to tell her story publicly. I respect that a lot.
This is a thought-provoking conversation-starting book, but not an entertaining one. If you’d like to read it (and I do think it’s worth reading), go in with a little openness and a lot of fortitude. If it strikes you as powerfully as it did me and you need someone to discuss it with, my comments and inbox (ytbellereads@gmail DOT com) are always open.