Julie Powell is best-known for following the 500-plus recipes in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Vol. 1, the classic co-authored by Julia Child.
The result, “Julie & Julia,” also led to one of this year’s movie bonbons: Meryl Streep as public television’s beloved “French Chef.”
“Cleaving” is Powell’s next course, and it’s less about recipe than formula. “Cleaving,” as the subtitle says, follows Powell’s disjointed marriage, assorted fixations and intense attraction to butchery.
That’s apropos. “Cleaving” is hack work.
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Blood-filled but bloodless, larded with filler and composed of cut-up pieces, “Cleaving” makes “Sex and the City” seem like Sondheim lyrics. Powell’s most colorful and unpredictable character is her red BlackBerry Pearl.
To update the tale since the last beef bourguignon, Powell’s marriage simmers uneasily, en route to boiling over, despite the couple’s “deep understanding” of each other and the blog-and-book success of “Julie & Julia.”
That’s not especially surprising, since both she and her spouse are tormenting themselves in extramarital affairs, hers with a frisson of S&M. In short: “I was giddy. Wanton. I had a lover.”
Paraphrasing a favorite TV show, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (another is “Veronica Mars”), Powell observes “When it came down to it, I got pretty much what I went after. Want. Take. Have. That was my simple motto.”
This statement of purpose generally takes in men and, lately, beef liver. What brings “Steamroller Powell” to the shelter of an upstate meat market is the quest for “a butcher’s intimate knowledge,” the search for “something calm and ordered,” sublimation by turning a steer into a steak.
“There’s an absolute sureness to a butcher” that appeals to Powell. At Fleisher’s butcher shop in the Catskills, she heatedly follows the learning curve of the scimitar and the song of the band saw. Butchers, you see, take things apart and thereby understand more completely — hearts and bones, stem to stern.
Could that be why Ernest Borgnine was so touching in “Marty”? No.
But Powell details this breakdown business many times, organ to organ, tenderloin to skirt. It’s an offal experience. Of course, she’s irritated when a customer asks for skinless, boneless chicken breasts.
Through the slaughtering and butchery, the best information Powell passes along is that oregano oil is good for cuts. Many readers instantly will recall Dan Aykroyd’s immortal, artery-slicing imitation of Child.
Despite the obvious imagery, which will be bizarrely revisited, Powell rarely goes more than skin-deep in “Cleaving.” She does note, however, that “The idea of the cleaver is that it’s about blunt force rather than razor sharpness.”
Powell spends 300 index-free pages swinging that cleaver, producing a rough-hewn piece of work sprinkled with 15 recipes. From the heavy-handed scenes of sex, rough and otherwise, which materialize like jump-cuts in a badly edited film; to the lessons in animal anatomy, which eventually begin to blend, “Cleaving” exposes needs, in Powell and the text.
Unfortunately, Powell goes from emotionally challenged heroine to remarkably unsympathetic protagonist, rambling and whining in New York and worldwide. Amy
Adams won’t get the part next time.