Just finished reading Julie and Julia, and I’m left with mixed feelings. It’s a fun story with an engaging “what if” premise: A frustrated anonymous cubicle dweller is in need of a creative challenge. (Ok, we’re with you so far. We all get that). Insert the self-imposed challenge by said cubicle dweller, Julie Powell, to take one year to work her way through quintessential Julie Child cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Vol. 1). Like a good recipe for a cocktail, add to the mix Julie’s high-strung, slightly neurotic personality, her monotonous day job, her personal attempts to create her own Cordon Bleu in Queens by night, an accountability group/cheerleading squad of blog followers, and one incredibly long-suffering husband, and you have the makings for a story that keeps readers happy for days! And it almost holds up, but Powell, unfortunately, allows herself to get in the way.
The story, when not obscured, is highly entertaining. The descriptions of the shopping trips alone were fascinating, leaving would-be gourmets nodding their heads and wondering, “Where DO you find beef suet? And what is beef suet anyway?” Anyone with a love for culinary adventures is automatically on Julie’s side, cheering her on, especially if, like Julie you may not even own decent knife—much less a gourmet kitchen. We want her, like Cinderella, to escape the cubicle and arrive in time for the grand ball (which in this case is a kitchen—so the analogy breaks down a little, but you get the point).
Powell is also charmingly honest about her own failures. We feel her pain through grey, gloppy sweetbreads, failed poach-egg goo, crepes that refuse to un-adhere themselves from the pan, and Boeuf Bourguignon that burns to a crisp when Julie passes out from one too many gimlets. We sort of love her for all the failures and find them completely understandable and forgivable. We cheer her on to try again; and we’re elated with each culinary victory.
On her current blog, Powell herself warns her book may offend some for two reasons: 1) Her coarseness, and 2) Her belief that all Republicans are ignorant and evil. I agree and, unfortunately, both of the above detract significantly from the story. I found myself wanting to breeze through certain bits to get back to the story. She rambles extensively about her friends, whose moral compass is pretty much whatever feels good. The depictions of one friend’s torrid affair with a married man, another who goes through boyfriends like water, combined with Powell’s propensity to look for some way to shock at every turn only detract from the story versus adding anything to it.
The better story is the married romance (an unusual and even brave topic) of Julie and Eric, living a rather unglamorous life, and, against all odds, making it work—even in Queens. By focusing too often on the lurid, the story loses focus from all that Julie is learning about commitment and seeing things through and creating magnificence in the midst of the mundane. Instead, numerous portions of the book seem to scream, “Look how liberated I am. I can talk about steamy sex, I can swear like a sailor, and I hate Republicans. Damn! I’m cool!”
Readers are willing to embrace a writer’s depictions of human foibles and character flaws. We get that. It is more difficult when the writer becomes so “in your face” that we find ourselves wanting to say to the writer, “Ahem…terribly sorry, but you’re standing just in front of the story. Would you mind stepping aside?”
Clearly, a key ingredient is missing in Powell’s writing: Graciousness. It is one lesson she has yet to learn from her guide and mentor, Julia Child. Perhaps, in time, she will.
Julie Powell is funny, intelligent, remarkably adept at turning a phrase, and clearly ill-suited for cubicle work! We all cheered her on and found genuine excitement in her personal challenge and in her frustrating but hilarious journey to victory. So our message is this: We’re with you. You are a writer! You don’t need to shock us (or bash us over the heads) to join you. We’re already here, eager to hear your story. So stick with the story. We’ll be back to cheer you on.
© 2009 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.