'Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession' by Julie Powell

The author of "Julie and Julia" returns with a memoir that combines foodie interests and troubled personal relationships

By Dinah Lenney

November 29th, 2009

It's a loaded title: "Cleaving" is one of those words that turns on itself depending upon how it's used; to cling on the one hand, to sever on the other. Undoubtedly meant to convey ambivalence, it's the clearest and cleverest thing about "Julie and Julia" author Julie Powell's new memoir -- wherein she masters the art of butchery and seems resolved to take a hatchet to her long-term marriage besides.

Except she can't quite do it. While she learns to wrest meat from the bone with the best of them, Powell is prepared neither to cleave nor leave, despite disappearing for days, weeks and months at a time.

From the beginning, Powell and husband Eric -- who kept the drinks coming in "Julie and Julia" (both book and movie) -- are in trouble. They've been having affairs, both of them, although Eric's betrayal appears to be more about self-preservation. Powell, however, has fallen in love with D, with whom she cheated before she and Eric were married. That was a mistake, but this is real; while Powell likes red meat, D is the obsession of the book's subtitle.

In a saga that unfolds in present tense, the author -- who has always had "a bit of a thing" for butchers -- apprentices herself at Fleisher's, a cheerful, state-of-the-art shop two hours north of her apartment in Long Island City. Does she really want to learn the trade? Apparently so. But she has another motivation. "I am far from home," she states at the end of the prologue. "Right where I want to be." Mostly, she's escaped in order to mourn the end of her affair: D has unequivocally dumped her, and she needs time with a cleaver to think about that.

The first section of the book -- which is divided into three uneven parts -- covers her apprenticeship and ends with a farewell party in the store. Or rather, it ends with a recipe. But before we get to " 'Home at Last' Chicken," there is a conversation with Jessica, Powell's boss, who knows she isn't ready to go back to Eric, and suggests a "Grand Meat Tour" instead.

Sure enough, Powell follows the beef to South America, Russia, Africa and Japan, and has all manner of adventures, savory and unsavory. By the end of her trip, she's exhausted and stuffed, and so are we. But once back in New York, the author is no more committed to her marriage than when she left, and within a month, who should surface but D? We're supposed to believe that Powell is a stronger person with a whole new skill set. Extended carving metaphors notwithstanding, she'll be able to put her new understanding to appropriate use.

"Cleaving" is an ambitious undertaking; Powell means to acquaint us with the ins and outs of a worldwide industry, even as she reveals intimate details about the unraveling of two relationships. An entertaining writer, she almost pulls it off, distracting us with descriptions of knives, carcasses and meals, as well as recipes strategically placed. (She has to live up to the foodie persona she established in "Julie and Julia," after all.)

Yet despite some fine writing about butchery, and some not-so-fine writing about romance, "Cleaving" turns out to be not much more than a rambling recitation -- not to say defense -- of all sorts of bad behavior. Powell would have us believe that she's in control of her life, but she's not even in control of her material. She has an agenda, which -- ask any student of memoir -- is a bad idea. Although ostensibly loving, although she doesn't butcher or cook anything that isn't already dead, Powell is not unlike the Glenn Close character in "Fatal Attraction": She will not be ignored.

Early on, the author explains her devotion to the written word: "Many people will argue that e-mail and SMS and instant messaging . . . have destroyed our capacity as a race for gracious communication." But in her view, "we've entered a golden epistolary age. . . . With written words I can persuade, tease, seduce. My words are what make me desirable."

This is debatable. Her critique of her own prose, in letters written to lover and husband from parts far-flung, is fairly apt: "solicitous and goofily gabby," on the one hand; "fervid and extravagant" on the other. Powell quotes liberally from text messages also; if only her biggest sin were her apparent belief that all language is equal.

To write a good memoir, you have to be more than shameless; self-awareness -- which is not the same as self-loathing -- is at a premium.

No doubt Powell has been as honest as she knows how to be, but she's an unreliable narrator, vain and self-pitying by turns, and lacking necessary perspective.

Yes, she can be fearless and provocative, but "Cleaving" -- which has a third meaning: to penetrate -- wants to be wise, as well. Unfortunately, at the end of this book, Powell seems not much closer to piercing insight about anybody's heart, her own least of all.

Lenney is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir." She teaches in the Master of Professional Writing program at USC.

ICleaving A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession Julie Powell Little, Brown: 308 pp., $24.99