Julie & Julia: 365 days, 524 recipes, 1 tiny apartment kitchen by Julie Powell

By Ekta R. Garg

April 20, 2011

Rated: Bypass it

For those of you interested in gaining 20 (or so) pounds without increasing your waistlines, this book is the answer.

I heard about the book through the movie, which released two years ago, although I only saw the movie two weeks ago.  “Julie and Julia” starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep (respectively) was playing on one of the movie channels on TV, and because I love Meryl Streep I set the DVR and watched it.  The film absolutely delighted me, and it piqued my curiosity about the book because I find it interesting to do a book/movie comparison when written stories are translated to the big screen.

As a general rule, the book is usually better.  You can’t receive the same level of depth and intimacy in a movie that you can in a book, and when you read a book you have the freedom to absorb the details at your own pace and in your own way.  As a bibliophile, I will usually argue the merit of a book over a movie.

Usually; in a few cases, the movie actually turns out better.  Until seeing “Julie and Julia,” I only had two solid examples on hand.  The first is “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (the 1971 film with Gene Wilder) because Wilder is brilliant as Wonka, the young boy who plays Charlie exudes the perfect balance of innocence and hope, and no amount of imagination can conjure up the images of all that chocolate like cinema can.

As for the second example—well, more about that in a minute.

But for now, we’ll talk about Julie & Julia: 365 days, 524 recipes, 1 tiny apartment kitchen by Julie Powell.  This memoir is a modern-day fairy tale.  Powell embarked on a crazy adventure.  Fueled by the intense desire to do something, she decided (almost on a whim) to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking—in a year.  And then she decided to blog about the experience.

The scene of Powell’s life practically screamed for a movie to be made.  Until August of 2002, she worked in a government agency in New York City and lived in Long Island City.  In August of that year, while still working full time, she started her blog about cooking her way through MtAoFC.  Within weeks Powell found a fan following, and the book chronicles her emotions and successes and failures in working through every one of Child’s 524 recipes.  By the end of it all she’d appeared on several TV spots and had received every writer’s dream come true: an advance to write Julie and Julia.

Julie and Julia, however, is not the book version of the blog.  It doesn’t even address the blog so much; it’s more “behind the scenes.”  Despite this, though, it reads much like a casual blog does.  Powell wanders down tangents, eventually returning to the premise of the memoir, and readers will get to know a lot about her friends, their relationships, and her workplace.

According to the book, Powell went to NYC from her home of Austin, TX to become an actress, although that dream never materialized.  She married her high school sweetheart, Eric, in her mid-twenties, and Eric actually provides her with the idea of the blog in the first place (in 2002 Powell, like most of us, didn’t really know what a blog was or what purpose it served.)  He is her constant, her never-ending support, and her first taste-tester in every cooking endeavor.

If you’re looking for a fun story to read (never mind all the profanity,) Julie and Julia fits the bill.  I wouldn’t necessarily point to it as an example of fine writing, however.  The unbelievable challenge she has undertaken proves to be enough of a driving force to compensate for the lack of the basics of story, plot, and character development.  And a memoir really takes on those literary devices in a different manner anyhow.

Powell spends quite a few pages describing various recipes, and on about 18 pages of this book that crests 300 pages (in the hardcover) she recreates what she imagines to be exchanges between Julia Child and Child’s husband, Paul.  These pages are almost out of place and detract from Powell’s own story, and knowing off the bat (as Powell tells us) that she’s used creative license to write these passages almost makes them unnecessary.  The rest of the book, however, is enjoyable enough.

But the movie, now—the movie truly elevates this story beyond Powell’s average prose.  Amy Adams is fun to watch as Powell, and Meryl Streep as Julia Child is stupendous.  Is there anything this woman can NOT do?  Also, Stanley Tucci as Paul Child deserves a mention.  Tucci carries the role of Paul with a certain dignity and solidity that makes it a no-brainer as to why Julia loved Paul.

After seeing the movie AND reading the book, I was curious to find out more about Powell herself.  Julie and Julia released in 2005; the movie released in 2009.  What had Powell done since then?  Isn’t this what all of us writers hope for and dream about, the chance to get published and build on it by writing more and attaining literary stardom?

Unfortunately it seems as though Powell hasn’t been able to capitalize on the enormous gift she received.  She wrote a second book called Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, which released in 2010.  This second memoir details Powell’s internship in an NYC butcher shop and also the infidelity in which she engaged, almost to the detriment of her marriage.  I say almost because apparently Eric, Powell’s husband, also cheated on her, and they eventually decide to stay together.

I don’t agree with Powell’s choice of story nor of life, and it seems that many readers feel the same.  Moreover, several reviews of the book call out the increasingly average prose of this second memoir, proving, I think, that Powell really isn’t a writer of great talent.  She just happened to chronicle a unique event the first time around and received her 30 minutes of fame because of it.

By its very nature, Powell’s blog about the cooking, entitled the “Julie/Julia Project” had to come to an end.  She started another blog as a means to continue communicating with her readers, but the last entry on that blog was exactly a year ago—in April 2010.  There have been no more blog posts since then and no more interviews since the weeks following the release of Cleaving.

As a writer who wishes for the kind of gift-wrapped opportunity Powell received, I feel sorry that she squandered it so easily.  And I also feel curiously encouraged.  If Julie Powell, sitting in her ratty Long Island City apartment and blogging about cooking her way through one of the most famous cookbooks of all time, can become a published author—maybe, just maybe, I have a shot too.  I don’t know when or where, but I have a shot.

And now back to those movies.  “Julie and Julia” would be the third example of a movie that turned out much better than the book.  While I’d known the second for quite a while, I realized only a few days ago that that second film was also a Meryl Streep/Stanley Tucci project—“The Devil Wears Prada.”  Another fabulous movie, as much for Streep as for Anne Hathaway and Stanley Tucci, but Streep definitely shines and deservedly won the Golden Globe for Best Actress for it.

If someone doesn’t mind a casual, meandering record of a year in someone’s life and their pursuits read Julie and Julia.  But for the essence of the book and a terrific film, definitely check out “Julie and Julia” on DVD instead.

***

What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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