It’s Memoir Monday here as we work our way through the month-long blogging bonanza celebrating the launch on March 28 of Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of “Like” in 1982. I’m reviewing memoirs I’ve read recently, as I’m apt to do frequently on this blog because good writers know that reading works in their genre makes them better.
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I once called Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia a “manufactured memoir.”
A manufactured memoir is born when a writer takes on a project of some sort, usually a year in length, and then writes about the life lessons it produces. Julie & Julia, which some might remember as the movie starring Amy Adams and the “overrated” Oscar-winning Meryl Streep, is the story of how secretary Julie Powell cooks and blogs her way through 524 recipes in Julia Child’s legendary Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year.
A “real” memoir, by my definition, develops organically, when an earth-shattering event occurs, and the author survives to tell the story, how she coped and what she learned. Think I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala or, yes, The Percussionist’s Wife by none other than yours truly. No one chooses prejudice, a tsunami or a sex-offending spouse, but stories of such terrible circumstances make for good drama.
Fortunately, Julie Powell’s second outing, Cleaving: A Story of Meat, Marriage, and Obsession, is a lot more like a real memoir. Unfortunately, she fails to find the magic in the bottle of creating a likable protagonist.
I appreciated Julie & Julia because I enjoyed seeing how Powell turned her funny, well-read blog into a narrative, character-driven book that was more than just a bunch of blog entries strung together. In that first book, she was funny, she was self-deprecating and she was earnest.
Cleaving, however, is a memoirist’s worst nightmare. She writes about being torn between her adoring husband and her lover, and how learning butchery delivered her from her desperation. A look at the horrible reviews on Amazon rip on not just the book, but the author and her life choices. After liking Powell so much in Julie & Julia, I felt horrible reading what haters had to say about Cleaving: “uncomfortable,” “horrific,” “I couldn’t stomach finishing it.”
One of the rules of fiction that applies to memoir writing is to create a likable protagonist. Unfortunately, the memoirist has only herself from which to draw her hero.
For Powell in Cleaving, her hero is a hot mess of lust, perversion and obsession (she drinks wayyyy too much wine, too), and a lot of readers can’t get past this.
I, however, admired Powell for putting herself out there. Who among us hasn’t felt the drunkenness of lust, the shame of perversion and the tunnel-vision of obsession? You haven’t, you say? OK, then you probably won’t like the book (and honestly, you might not appreciate my style of writing either; don’t say I didn’t warn you). But if you’re imperfect and you know it, clap your hands, you might appreciate Cleaving.
Like Julie & Julia, Cleaving goes into great details about food, in this case, how to cut up dead animals, and it offers a few recipes. And as in Julie & Julia, Powell knows her craft; she’s good at turning a phrase and a master of metaphor; Chapter 5, “Break Down” is about breaking down a beef round and about, well, breaking down. One has to admire her clever juxtaposition.
But overall, I felt like Powell hadn’t let her extramarital affair sit long enough before she tried to write about it. It was all still too fresh. The foray into butchery was clearly manufactured to be a follow-up to Julie & Julia, but she (or her publisher) pushed herself too soon and may have lost her perspective.
I’m hoping Cleaving doesn’t turn Powell into the woman she describes as her grandmother, a woman who “lived every day of her life harboring a blackness in her, a profound dissatisfaction with the confines she’d placed herself in when she was still just a beautiful young woman of limited prospects in Brazoria, Texas, that had settled into a sort of dry rot of the imagination. So what must it be like to see your entire profession — not just your job, or your business, but the entire profession, what you have always done for a living — crumpling up and blowing away.”
Hang on, Julie Powell.
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Look for more about creating a likable protagonist here on Thursday.