Far too many of the scathing reviews of Julie Powell’s second book, Cleaving: A Story Of Marriage, Meat, And Obsession, have focused on Powell’s morality rather than her writing; after reading it (or even about it), people love to judge her. But to be fair, she seems to be openly demanding that judgment, not in her admissions of infidelity, but in her aggressive smugness and lack of relatable insight about them.
In her bestselling debut book, Julie And Julia, Powell cooked her way through Julia Child’s Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, all while dwelling on the saintliness and supportiveness of her husband Eric. She continues to praise his perfection in Cleaving, as she gleefully describes her affair with a man she calls D, and less-gleefully discusses how, after D rejected her, she was driven to rough sex with anonymous strangers. And after prodding Eric to sleep with other women, refusing to discuss the affair, and answering his teary “I love you”s with “I know,” she closes by admitting a complete lack of guilt over his agonies, which she describes in excruciating detail. Perhaps she doesn’t want readers’ sympathy—or at least doesn’t want to be seen soliciting it—but since she never seems to grasp what she’s getting out of either the marriage or the affair (apart from fetish fulfillment in the latter case), it’s unclear what she does want.
Cleaving is a fairly scatterbrained book. It focuses simultaneously on the infidelity and on the gory details of Powell’s apprenticeship in a butcher shop; when the latter ends, she travels to three randomly selected countries to explore butchery there. A few strained metaphors connect these segments, as she likens herself and Eric to a single contiguous bone rather than an easily separated joint, or dwells on the carnal physicality of meat, but they’re otherwise just a list of Things That Happened. The individual segments often have a bloggy richness of incident, detail, and humor. There’s a lot of absorbing material in her travelogue—particularly in Tanzania, where she drinks blood with the Maasai, watches a goat being suffocated and skinned, and later is robbed and nearly raped. And she’s often entertaining in her in-depth experiences in learning how to transform animal bodies into anonymous food. But all this material is too muddled-together to be a series of essays, and not nearly cohesive enough to feel like a single piece.
It’s a relief to see Powell not fall into the standard, mandated arc of addiction, bottoming out, and redemption as she talks about her sexual obsession, but while she doesn’t embrace the clichés, she also doesn’t come up with any replacement arc to give Cleaving a purpose or focus. Lacking an analytical self-awareness to go with her self-absorption, she wallows in her emotions like a teenage diarist, or denies them entirely. And she comes across as callow and far too pleased with herself, particularly when describing how she assumes other people see her, as beautiful, rakish, mysterious, and—in a bit of purple prose far more stomach-turning than the descriptions of chopping up animals—possibly just a bit dangerous. (“But, truly, the glint in my eyes is not about violence or vengeance or cruelty. The joy I take is not—well, not only—in the power I now have to hack and cut and destroy.”) Sadly, Cleaving isn’t dangerous. It isn’t as sexy, thrilling, and daring as Powell seemingly thinks, either. It’s mostly a baffling history of events related only by their importance to Julie Powell, which doesn’t necessarily make them important to anyone else.