From August 2002 to August 2003, Julie Powell worked her way through Julia Child's landmark 1961 cookbook Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, Vol. 1, the 700-page-plus, illustration-filled behemoth that established Child's reputation for bringing haute cuisine to the everyday American kitchen. That gap-bridging remains Child's legacy, but it didn't stop Powell from finding recipes for Fricadelles de Veau à la Niçoise or aspic a challenge. Over the course of the year, she blogged about it at the now-inactive Julie/Julia Project website, recounting, in profane detail, boiling calves' hooves and killing lobsters in a cramped Long Island City apartment.
That was the blog. Julie & Julia is the book. And while it's an entirely new creation detailing that year, it has a hard time shaking off its origins. Powell writes as if struggling to decide what to address among the many topics bouncing around in her mind at any given moment (her job, her blanket contempt for Republicans, her flagging sex life, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, her friends, and, oh yeah, that cooking thing), and then just writing about all of them at once. That digressive stream-of-consciousness style has become the lingua franca of the blogosphere, and while it can be an art form when dished out in daily installments, it's a slog at book length. Maybe that's why Powell tried to squeeze it into the Borders-ready memoir form. In Julie & Julia, Powell doesn't just cook, she has a character arc, learns lessons, relates to her past, and sifts revelations from the minutiae of everyday life, all while sipping gimlets and fretting about turning 30.
Written in a tone that seems to want to establish Powell as an Erma Bombeck for the vintage-eyewear set, Julie & Julia is a pleasant enough read, but apart from the cooking segments, an awfully familiar one. Powell spends pages describing the ins and outs of handmade mayonnaise and the art of making crêpes. It's not exactly Melville on whaling, but it has a craft that's not evident elsewhere in the book. When not cooking, Powell is apparently either engaged in sitcom-cute dialogue with her husband and friends, or having a John Cassavetes-worthy meltdown. It must be exhausting. Toward the end, Powell credits the Julie/Julia Project with giving focus to her life that wasn't there before. Good for her. Too bad it didn't rub off on her writing.