The premise of Julie and Julia is appealing: a year of elaborate French cooking in a little apartment in Queens. What a worthy challenge both personal and cultural! What can we 21st-century workaday Americans learn by reliving the culinary adventures of an expat in France?
Well, if you’re Julie Powell, not much. The author isn’t exactly prone to critical thinking or worthwhile insights. In fact, I spent most of my time reading Julie and Julia actively disliking her. Powell is the definition of self-centered: she’s utterly obsessed with her own suffering (a tedious job! a commute! an overprotective mother! the horror!), and indifferent to the sufferings of others (she constantly picks fights with her loving husband; she encourages a friend to start an extramarital affair for the fun of it). She smokes, she drinks to excess, she cusses people out. If there’s a hero to be found it’s her ever-supportive husband, who’s generally either lending a hand with dishes or slinking away to avoid her unwarranted verbal abuse.
Powell’s personality is so detestable that it distracted me from her writing for a while. Oh, the writing.
Truthfully, she can write well enough on a sentence-by-sentence level. Some of her lines are real gems; some paragraphs are downright hilarious. Still, that’s nowhere near enough to redeem the book overall—she needs to be able to edit, too. It’s all well and good that her blog was popular, but bloggers can hop about from topic to topic each day according to their moods. That unpredictability is part of the medium’s appeal. Not so in a book. Powell doesn’t even maintain consistent verb tenses within scenes, let alone find some larger sense of structure. Each of her chapters wanders anachronistically from anecdote to anecdote and leaves loose ends everywhere to trip up the reader. The book as a whole has no sense of character development or narrative arc.
The plea for her to edit applies to her voice as well. Could you edit your tone into something a bit more pleasant to read, perhaps? Good lord, the whining. I lost count of how many times she rhetorically wailed some variation of “Why am I doing this?!” It wasn’t long before I wanted to yell back “Yes, why? Just stop cooking if it’s making you so miserable, and spare us all your misery by extension.” The wails were accompanied by just as many all-out conniptions in the kitchen—pans flung, profanities hurled, tears wept, selves thrown to the sticky floor.
And, oh yes, the floor is sticky, because her entire apartment sounds like a HazMat zone. Grease, cat hair, dust, and black plumbing-related ooze are all ever-present features, not to mention the writhing maggot sludge discovered toward the end of the year. It’s not that I can’t handle an ick factor in a memoir. But honestly, in a memoir about food preparation? It feels like a health concern.
Speaking of food preparation, I did enjoy Powell’s descriptions of Julia Child’s recipes. However, the recipe she references most frequently by far is the vodka gimlet, a favorite in the Powell household. Really this is just a fancy way of saying that most nights out of the week she sipped lime-tinged vodka until she sank into a drunken stupor on the cat-hair-coated couch and awoke unbathed the next morning with her contact lenses glued to her eyes. The Powell household special, I’ll call that. So all in all, I much preferred the descriptions of Julia Child’s recipes that were provided by Julia herself in her own far-superior memoir My Life in France. Just read that instead.