'Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession' By Julie Powell Little, Brown and Co., 308 pages, $24.99
Julie Powell, of "Julie & Julia," uses meat, and lots of it, as a symbol.
Sex, even good sex, is much less complicated than butchery. In Julie Powell's new memoir, "Cleaving," extended passages devoted to meticulous meat "fabrication" (that's what butchers call it when huge hunks of animal are whittled into recognizable cuts) give way to shorter segments chronicling her amorous trysts with a gentleman who is emphatically not her husband.
The meat talk does not render the pillow talk more palatable, or vice versa. Early in the book, Powell writes cockily that she has a "surprisingly strong stomach." Honey, after Cleaving's S&M interludes, raunchy anonymous assignations and recipes for headcheese, so do we, so do we.
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Eric, the long-suffering designated butter-eater from Powell's successful blog-turned-book-turned-film "Julie &Julia," is cuckolded at the start of Cleaving, an unforeseen life twist that pushes Powell toward a headlong dive into butchery. To borrow an analogy from her most hated food in "Julie & Julia," butchery is the aspic that suspends and holds the rest of this book's characters and plot, like bugs in a wobbly amber.
But the recipe doesn't quite jell. It's one among a growing number of finding-myself-through-food memoirs. Unlike Bill Buford's "Heat" or Elizabeth Gilbert's smash "Eat, Pray, Love," Powell learns new skills, travels to far-flung places (Ukraine; a Masai village in Tanzania) but returns home at book's end the same self-absorbed malcontent with an unhealthy zeal for animal protein (Cleaving's recipes all read, essentially: "Heat pan, sear big chunk of meat quickly, salt and pepper to taste.")
The verb "to cleave" is a rare thing, an auto-antonym that means its own opposite, both to stick together and to cut apart. Powell doesn't know which definition she fancies for her own rocky marriage. Her butcher's knife is surely sharp enough, but she seems to just stand around until the meat starts to smell funny.