I’m surprised at how good this book is. I couldn’t get through Julie Powell’s first book, Julie and Julia. I only liked the film because of the parts that are about Julia Child, and because of Meryl Streep’s performance. I found the Powell character irritating and boring.
Her second book, which has gotten some scathing reviews and many personal attacks on its author, promised more of the same. Fortunately, it breaks that promise.
It’s another memoir. This time, unable to stop being unfaithful to her husband, Powell tries to distract herself by learning the art of butchery. She gets an unpaid apprenticeship at a butcher shop run by people she calls “meat hippies.” She forms intimate friendships with her bosses and colleagues, and she learns how an animal’s flesh gets from the farm to the kitchen table. When her lover refuses to see her, she has a series of anonymous sexual encounters, while hoping to hold her marriage together.
This could have been self-indulgent or turgid or gimmicky, or all three. But there is little about this book that isn’t good. Powell knows how to write narrative, and, however painful or shameful her confessions, she never slips into narcissism. Whether she’s describing butchering an animal, making dinner, stalking her ex-lover or having bad sex with an unattractive stranger, she writes with honesty and wit that makes the reader care. It goes on slightly too long, losing some momentum, but not to the point of becoming dull.
Unlike its predecessor, this a serious book, not an exercise in attention-seeking. Powell emerges as a decent person trying to figure out how to live, and as a writer of depth and nuance who may have great books ahead of her.
Something that doesn’t seem to occur to Powell, though, is that she isn’t the problem. What’s causing all the pain and confusion is an unquestioning acceptance that monogamy is a virtue. Powell clearly loves her husband; indeed, she finds life without him unthinkable. She doesn’t seem to mind when he has an affair, since it doesn’t make her doubt that he loves her and wants to be married to her. She just doesn’t seem to be a sexually monogamous person, and I can’t see that there would be any problem were it not for the (perhaps self-imposed) expectation that she should be, or should be perceived to be.