Friday, August 7, 2009

Book review: Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell.

What was it that attracted me to this book? The cooking? The Paris/New York combination? The upcoming film version? I think it was a mix of all three. I must admit that I was wary at first. The book is a memoir, a genre that used to be non-fiction until James Frey and his ilk blew it up into a million little pieces. On the other hand, the film posters and the movie tie-in edition of Julie and Julia had me thinking the book would be chick-lit. That wouldn't be so bad, but could I handle another fluff piece? (James Patterson, all is not yet forgiven for Sundays At Tiffany's).

I worried for nothing. Julie and Julia is not chick-lit at all. Nor is it a bad memoir.

Julie and Julia is named after the project Julie Powell started in 2002, when she was 29. Her goal was to cook her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year, risking well-being and sanity for... well, we'll get to that. 524 recipes in 365 days. It's an interesting premise, and readers get the full experience of the highs and lows of Julie's Year of Cooking Dangerously.

Whatever you may think of the premise, the book has literary merits. Powell knows how to write well. True, the book sometimes reads like a blog--for the good reason that Powell blogged about the project for a year before turning it into book--but several passages rise above that. From being a government drone to hacking bone marrow, or from living in a hellish "loft" in Queens to saving a crumbling marriage, everything rings of authenticity.

Julie begins her project in anonymity, but within a short time she has a loyal following of blog readers, also known as the bleaders. When the going gets tough (and sometimes it gets very, very tough), Julie is compelled to continue. It took me about half the book to understand just how challenging this project actually was; cooking all those recipes--french cuisine, no less--from scratch, nearly every day for a year. Sometimes the same recipe would have to be made every day for a week because it formed the foundation of another recipe. Sometimes the same thing would have to be cooked several times in the same day because it would not turn out. All this while working as a government secretary, and trying to keep a marriage intact.

The problem with being so busy is there aren't many outlets for frustration. Her husband, Eric, is a huge help. If their marriage could withstand that year, it can withstand anything. Julie's friends give moral support when they can, but they're not around that much, and they're underdrawn. At least the bleaders are supportive, and there's always vodka gimlets and episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Reading the cooking sections works two ways. On the one hand, it's great for the details. This is an average person in an average kitchen, making all the mistakes that someone with no chef training would make. And that's fantastic. It's real, and it sucks you in. Readers will be right there with Julie, cursing Julia Child and MtAoFC when something goes wrong over one mis-read instruction in the cookbook. On the other hand, be prepared for some very vivid images. Some recipes are not for the faint of heart. You could be a red-blooded meatitarian with nothing but disdain for vegans, and you will still want to take a breather after some of Julie's ordeals. Even the author had to take a break and visit her parents in Texas after a couple of episodes with lobsters.

Occasionally there are little sections--vignettes, almost--about Julia Child, written from her husband Paul's perspective. We get to see Julia after she was a World War II spy, but before she became interested in cooking. It's an interesting parallel, although there could have been more of it.

In closing, I think this is a really good book. It is vivid and insightful, and there is a lot that will feel familiar to anyone who is or has been a twentysomething in need of a purpose in life. Which brings us to the reason behind the Julie/Julia project. Early on in the book, Julie's mother asks her why she is doing the project. Julie doesn't really know, but the answer becomes more apparent with each month as she does battle in the kitchen. It's about finding inspiration and dedication, even if you risk your health and sanity, and even if you put on twenty pounds of butter-weight.

Verdict: Recommended

NOTE: For anyone going to see the movie, it shares the same name as the book, but the film is actually a combination of this memoir, and My Life in France, by Julia Child.


lwebb said...

I've wanted to see this since I saw the trailer, I feel like I am at a cross-roads with my career as well. I think it would be quite thought provoking. Thanks for the preview on the book :)

Jessica (BookLover) said...

I didn't know that about the movie--that it's actually a combination of both books. That's interesting. I'll probably still wait until it comes out on Video before I watch it. ;)

I have read mixed reviews of this book. You have just convinced me to pick it up! :)
Great review!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, I am more likely to pick up the book than see the movie. I read somewhere that Julie Powell commented that the movie wasn't very accurate to her life/memoir... oh for the love of movie-making-entertainment.

Diane said...

I'm really looking forward to Julie and Julia; the book and the movie!

Nikola said...

The trailer looks really good, and after reading your review, I'll be picking this book up for sure.

Great blog!

Errant Knave said...

lwebb, Jessica, Laura, Diane, and Nikola: thank you. I just saw the movie, and I really liked it. Meryl Streep is fantastic! It'll take a while for the Julia Child voice to get out of your head.

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