When Augustine of Hippo was beatified he was not yet known as the father of the memoir. His contributions to the modern Church led to his sainthood, while his decision to title his book about his early life Confessions has led to our present-day glut of tell-all non-fiction. Because of St. Augustine, the generic requirements of the memoir are a descent into chaos or dissolution followed by an epiphany that leads to life being turned around and righted. Sometimes the protagonist triumphs over adversity, sometimes over his or her own self-created demons. Either way, the progression is time and again toward a happy ending.
What to do, though, if one is a serial memoirist? How many conversions can one have in one's life, after all? Augusten Burroughs solves this problem by going over the same material over and over again, hacking away at it from slightly different angles. So does Mary Knarr. Elizabeth Wurtzel solves the dilemma by developing various addictions and psychological problems. Another option is to come up with a gimmick and then write about the ways that gimmick changed one's life: have zero environmental impact for a year and write about it, live strictly according to the Bible for a year and write about it, etc.
Once upon a time, a woman droned in a cubicle in lower Manhattan feeling bored and adrift. She like to cook, though, and had heard of this new thing called blogging, so she decided to spend a year cooking every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and writing about it, and about her life. The end result was first a popular blog, then an entertaining book, then a movie starring Merryl Streep, and finally a book contract for more memoirs. Cleaving, Julia Powell's new work, is the result of the new career engendered by the success of her blogging experiment.
It's a book about butchering, both literally and metaphorically. Having completely butchered her marriage by entering into an obsessive affair, Powell decides to hide from the complications of her life, and perhaps work out some aggression, by apprenticing as a butcher in a Catskills meat shop. The book describes her years of butchery with intense honesty, not only about the feel and smell of meat and the techniques involved in preparing it for the grill or oven or pan, but also about her sexual proclivities and indiscretions. Confessions, indeed.
Julie and Julia was an entertaining read because of its breezy insouciance, because of Powell's ability to at once take her task seriously and with a grain (or pinch) of salt. Cleaving, on the other hand, is full of high seriousness. Meat cleaves to bone as we sometimes cleave to one another, and the only solution is to become expert at wielding a cleaver, breaking down carcasses and breaking our own and each others hearts. Relationships, marriages, are hard, no matter how much we love and are committed to each other. This is old news. Infidelity makes things harder, and can be something we learn from that brings us closer or can be something that tears us apart.
Powell is great at describing her obsession with her lover, her need for him, and at the same time her love for her husband. She is great at describing the pain this causes everyone involved. She is great at chroniciling the fevered time of chaos and loss. She's not so great at resolution, perhaps because her career as a serial memoirist requires a sequel, maybe a year spent at a processing plant to help her, you know, process. We end this installment with her still with her husband, but with her still pining for her lover, and with her husband still seeing the woman he began seeing while she was cheating on him. She claims a certain amount of happiness, but maybe it's just resignation.
In other words, Cleaving feels incomplete. It captures the descent, but not the phoenix-like rise from the ashes. It reads like a confession told not because the events led to a new understanding, but simply from a desire to confess. Although the experience of writing the book was undoubtedly cathartic for Powell, there isn't much in it for anyone else. Except, of course, some recipes, and a new understanding of why tenderloin is overpriced.