Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Book review

I finally got a chance to read "Julie & Julia" by Julie Powell on my recent transatlantic voyages. I was really looking forward to the book because the idea is so intriguing -- one year to cook everything in volume 1 of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" -- and even more impressive when you see what nutty things Julia wants you to cook. Honestly, I could go my entire life without needing to know what aspic is or boiling horse hooves. So I settled into my narrow coach seat with minimal leg room and started reading, totally hoping for culinary adventures that rivaled my own but with more exotic ingredients.

And this, unfortunately, is where the book derails. Maybe my expectations were too high but I was expecting something fun, lively, this idea of self-discovery through bone marrow and butter, and instead ended up with a story that had glimpses of brilliance and humor and insight, but was mostly plodding in its construction and pacing. Instead of insight or thoughts about French cooking, Powell spins stories about her friends without really giving the reader a reason to care. Why do I care about these girlfriends who flit and flirt in and out of the narrative? They don't wash dishes or cook so why oh why are pages and pages of text devoted to them when they add nothing to any plot line or character development?

Powell is whiny and can be obnoxious, such as when she is describing 9/11 families; I get that she worked day in and day out with families of the victims and there's a point at which you become numb, but please. I'm a Democrat (no surprise to readers of this blog), but even I got tired of her incessant Republican-bashing; given that there didn't seem to be a nefarious Republican plot to ban French cooking, the constant trashing talking does nothing to advance the plot or characters. And that's really the problem with the book. There are a lot of ingredients, but nothing gels, no underlying theme that really holds it together.

For a story to be successful, there needs to be some kind of change -- a character starts at point A and ends up at point B. Julie Powell just circles her kitchen (which is disgusting, btw, but mildly funny and relatable in an awkward, uncomfortable way) and never quite convinces us (or me, more precisely) that she is learning anything from her experiment. The motivation for the project is also murky. I get that at the beginning, the author feels trapped by her life and she wants something to spice life up. So why Julia Child? And what does cooking her way through this book bring to her life other than piles of dirty dishes and a penchant for finding rare and expensive ingredients? The questions are never answered. Somehow, it becomes about blogging, about finding validation externally through "bleaders", and Julia Child becomes incidental to the book (And oh yeah, there are made-up bits about Julia Child either, but some of them were cringeworthy).

I was really disappointed in this book because it could have been so much more. It should have been a light and fun read and occasionally it was. I was looking forward to reading about someone who lives a life ordinarily like so many of us, yet rising above it by taking on this crazy project. In the end, it seemed like an excercise in navel gazing instead, definitely better suited for a blog than for a book. Amazon.com reviews seem to imply the movie is much better than the book; I haven't seen the movie, but I definitely don't recommend the book.

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