Julie & Julia
Having seen the movie before reading the memoir, I was surprised to find that Julie Powell paints herself as an insecure, judgmental crazy woman who constantly throws hissy fits and collapses on the dirty floor. On the one hand this presentation might seem “honest,” or “brave,” since after all it does avoid the memoir-trap of presenting oneself as “better,” or more put-together than one actually is. On the other hand, though, it seems to go too far in the other direction. Truth be told, I just didn’t always buy it. The voice feels constrained by its negativity; Powell wants us to think she’s tough, yet the concern for how others will view her undermines that assertion. For example, Powell avoids talking about her success for the most part, and when she does discuss the interviews and press she starts to get because of her blog, she is dismissive and off-hand, focusing on the tedious parts of doing TV interviews, only for very brief instants expressing any kind of happiness or excitement about the fame that seems to be coming her way. She seems not to want to piss the other jealous bitches off - she knows only too well how annoying it is when someone other than you has a reason to be happy – so she pretends that she doesn’t really care about any of it, and the interviewers and journalists asking her questions, she says, are pretty stupid, anyway.
Which is fine, I guess. And understandable, because Powell lives in New York, and because while people here crave success and attention, they also know that others may not be 100% psyched for them if they achieve it, so they’d better not get too (openly) happy about it. In fact, they’d better not get too happy in general, because everything will of course come crashing down again at any moment. So instead of getting our hopes up we pretend a toughness that may or may not really be there; in Powell’s case, she tells us out how disgusted she is by the word “joy,” a point that’s obviously meant to prove she’s not naïve and silly enough to actually believe in such a thing. For me, this is the problem with Julie & Julia: Powell admires Julia Child for the exact qualities she herself either does not have or cannot express – joy, hope, wild abandonment of societal opinion, glee. While Powell’s depiction of herself might be “honest,” I don’t think it’s completely true. I don’t think she’s quite brave enough to really tell the truth here, and while I don’t think it makes for a great memoir, I do think it’s completely understandable. For me, too cynicism is often more comfortable than hope.
The premise of Julie & Julia is unique and interesting – a dissatisfied secretary cooks her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year while blogging about it. There are a few heartwarming moments, some funny moments, and a lot of relatable moments. While Powell is very good at describing her disgusting kitchen covered in dirty dishes and kitty litter, her descriptions of the tastes and textures of the food are less evocative. The best parts of the book are the infrequent interludes in which Powell fictionalizes brief episodes of Julia’s life, giving us a hint of what the iconic chef was like. Nora Ephron, who wrote and directed the movie version, obviously agrees with me. The movie reverses the focus of the book, staying primarily with Julia Child, played by Meryl Streep, and her husband Paul, in their post-war Paris apartment as Julia goes to cooking school, becomes a chef, and eventually writes MtAoFC. Amy Adams, as Julie Powell, is sweeter, cuter, funnier, and less foulmouthed than the book Julie, all of which makes for a more enjoyable experience.
If I supposedly value honesty so much, I should put in a disclaimer here. We all come to books with our own needs and desires and hang-ups and I, like everyone else, read through the lens of whatever else is going on in my life. Right now, I have just moved back to New York City after five years away. Given my circumstances, it’s probably no big surprise that I’m troubled by the portrait of an angry, hostile woman in a callous, dirty city. Getting to know Julie Powell brought me uncomfortably close to the reasons I ran away from New York the first time around. While I was away I seem to have calmed down a bit, and the angry demon that used to consume me is sleeping, for now, but the truth is that I’m completely terrified that all that sadness and desperation will come rushing right back now that I’m back in the big bad city. Powell’s memoir made it harder for me to pretend I wasn’t feeling those fears.
I could leave. But as it’s love that’s brought me here, I’m going to stay. I could fall into cynicism and despair, but as I want to have a happy life I’m going to keep on doing the hard thing, which is choosing hope again and again, a thousand times a day. Like reminding myself that Julie & Julia was written in another time. 2005 is a long time ago, not just for me, but for all of us. Our old concerns about money and status and power just don’t seem as important now that we’ve seen how easily they can be taken away, and how much we have to depend on each other when that happens. I won’t go so far as to say that snark is “dead,” but it’s dead to me, and because of that this book feels like a relic of some dark, uncivilized past. It’s true that I live in New York again, but at least I don’t live there anymore.