Book review: Julia & Julia

Julia & Julia by Julie Powell

Subtitled “My year of Cooking Dangerously” Julie Powell’s “Julie & Julia” suggests conflict the ilk of Khrushchev & Kennedy; Tweedledum & Tweedledee; Blackadder & Baldrick. There are times when the book lives up to these classic pairings but so too are there times when they resemble Caesar & Cleopatra; Barnum & Bailey; Jack & Jill.

The book is a jocular journey through a woman’s perceived change-of-life event – her encroaching thirtieth birthday. Powell is not satisfied with what she has achieved in her life to date. College trained, she had hoped to become a writer but abandoned her unfinished first novel, resorting to secretarial temp work. She feels unfulfilled, stuck in a rut, and believes that if she does not do something meaningful before she turns thirty, she will be a failure.

She and her husband rent a dismal apartment in a New York borough. They have a close, loving and supportive relationship. She works in the government agency administrating the redevelopment of the former Twin Towers site. Her story begins with the event that triggers her realisation that her life is bogged down. Her doctor recommends to her that now would be a good time for her to try to become pregnant. This reminds her of her mother’s continual nagging on the same subject. Feeling the pressure of this advice, and the recognition that her reproductive ability is ageing, she rushes home to her husband, stopping to buy something to cook for their dinner.

She realises that she has purchased the exact ingredients for a soup recipe from a cookbook that she has. The book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is by Child, a famous American Cordon Bleu cook with her own cookery show on television. As she and Eric enjoy the soup, they discuss Powell’s feelings and identify that she needs a focus in her life, a project to undertake. Powell decides to cook each of the 542 recipes in the Child cookbook over the course of one year, blogging her progress online.

The fifteen chapters of the book revolve around this project but there is much more to the story. Interspersed throughout are a small number of short (single page) scenes between Child and her husband some fifty years earlier. These describe their meeting, romance, marriage and events pertinent to Powell and her husband. Through this device the reader discovers parallels between Powell and Child.

As the stories of both women emerge, it becomes evident that they have much in common. Both have strong, supportive husbands; both want children but are childless; each like swearing, drinking and cats, and crucially, both need a “new beginning” in their lives. Contrasting with this, their backgrounds are totally different. Child works in the OSS (which this writer knows to be the nascent CIA) in a number of overseas locations during WWII. During a post-war stationing in France, Child decides that her ‘project’ will be in learning Cordon Bleu. This allows the reader to conclude, through subsequent revelation, that both women found themselves at a point in their lives where what they had wasn’t enough, and set out to rectify it. Both the author and her muse overcome obstacles and meet their goals and essentially, this is the theme of the book.

One of the reasons that the book is so exceedingly readable is because of the dual layers of suspense that the author has contrived as a clever device to generate impetus. This literary perpetual motion is provided by having the overall arithmetical goal of 542 recipes in 365 days, then also making the outcome of each cooking scene uncertain. The former can become tense enough for the reader to calculate or estimate the mathematical progress, or the lack thereof (my formula for this was recipe number as a percentage of pages remaining.) The latter will tease the reader in a number of ways to expect a catastrophic outcome to a dish, and then produce an award-winning result. And visa-versa. The combination of this event-related suspense, with the suspense of eventual goal attainment, had me hooked. The result provides a new benchmark for the achievement of that old chestnut of the book-reviewer’s cliché, ‘un-put-down-ability’.

The book is a narrative with little initial exposition, though this is provided in a nominal way by intermittent reflection. Powell styles herself as a socially active, long-suffering secretary who loves being her husband’s wife. She is politically vocal and affirms her affiliations and philosophy in this respect. But inside she is vulnerable and emotional. Her tone can range from opinionated to petulant but only sounds disturbing in her unsympathetic descriptions of members of the public offering their opinions on the redevelopment of Ground Zero. This stereotyping, her foul language and her drinking, is part of what she is and could be attributes of her generation or accumulated apathy. Apart from this she is sensitive. She develops a connection with Child in the course of the story. He husband actually overhears her subconsciously quoting Child. Her respect of, and for Child, helps her meet her goal.

The genre is memoir by Powell with selective biography of Child. It is not a cookbook. I suspect that the book was written for an American audience and were I an American, Child would be familiar to me by reputation. But I understand this, so that lack of information doesn’t detract. The validity of the memoir is subject to the writer’s early admission that it includes some fiction. I chose to ignore this and read it as an actual account because I was not in a position to identify which was which. I generally expect a degree of literary licence in such books anyway, and conceptually this is no different to self-censorship.

Powell’s writing style is informal, fast and funny. Profanity is proficient. It is also fluid yet eclectic and the combination of these contradictory styles actually works. I suspect that a professional editor could ‘drive a coach and four’ through many passages, but this reader sympathised with the stressed civil servant who had bitten off more than she might have been able to chew, so I gave her a free pass on this. It made her more human. Perhaps I identify with her as an inexperienced, untested writer.  Perhaps I feel karmic about criticising the failed novelist who went on to write Julie & Julia, attracting an actor of the calibre of Meryl Streep to take a title role in the subsequent movie.

This book has increased my confidence in my own writing because it shows me that ambition and desire can supercede experience. I may lack Powell’s inspiration and her courage to undertake such a huge risk with an outwardly insipid subject, but I could match, perhaps exceed, her style and tone. I know that I could express myself better and be more sympathetic to my audience in some places. But I doubt that I could have divined the structure that, to me, makes this book so captivating and agreeable.

Whaddya think?

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