Back Bay Books, 2009 movie tie-in reedition of 2005 original, 307 pages, C$16.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-316-04427-1
Movies based on a single book are common, but the 2009 food comedy Julie & Julia is actually based on two books: Julia Child’s autobiographical My Life in France, and Julie Powell’s own Julie & Julia. If you have both books available, tackle Child’s book first: It’s a warm narrative of Child’s experience learning to cook properly in Paris, then taking years to transform that skill into a now-classic cookbook. It’s charming, faithful to Child’s voice and a terrific incentive to learn more about cooking. My Life in France also provides the foundation upon which Julie & Julia is built: When Julie Powell decides to cook all the recipes in Child’s cookbook in a single year, she’s drawing inspiration from the events that Child describes.
But this isn’t a review of My Life in France. For various reasons, it’s more interesting to tackle Powell’s book. Whereas Child sound happy, confident and masterful, Powell depicts herself as a neurotic, confused and cranky administrative assistant, adrift in life until she sees the chance to do something epic. It doesn’t make her as admirable a figure as Child, but it sure makes her more interesting.
So it is that Julie & Julia describes how Powell literally picks herself up from the floor and launches herself in a project that most of us would rightfully consider to be a bit mad: 524 recipes in a year, chronicled as a blog. The book is not the collected blog; it’s rather a book-length essay, written after the fact but generally espousing the chronology of the events in that “year of cooking dangerously”.
Much of the book is devoted to cooking by someone whose skills in that matter were good but not impossibly so: Julie occasionally sees recipes fail spectacularly, can’t find ingredients even in New York, makes mistakes and sees her personal life altered by her experiences. This is all good fodder for comedy, of course: Cooking lobsters doesn’t sound like a big deal until you’re bringing them back home on the subway, and then killing them in various ways. (The movie makes a big deal of the lobsters, but the book does a lot more mileage out of other traumatic experiences, including cleaving marrow out of bones.)
But Powell’s year of cooking Childishly isn’t all about laughs and madcap adventures: Child’s low-level work at a Manhattan federal organization dealing directly with the aftermath of 9/11 is fraught with heartbreak and frustration, not to mention workers who aren’t entirely sympathetic to her growing fame as a food blogger. (She does tend to lump an awful lot of them in a group called “Republicans”, which sounds impolite even to my Canadian ears.) At home, tensions arise between herself and her husband over the course of the experience: theirs is a mature marriage, and the crises that arise between them are typical of people who have been together a long time.
But in the end, it’s not the food (although Julie & Julia will shame you in becoming a better one), nor the tale but the words that hold up the story together. Powell writes well, writes hilariously and writes with a good attention to detail. The stories fit together, the episodes rise to a narrative climax and there aren’t many dull moments. We get a glimpse at the mindset of a cook’s developing expertise, as well as a pretty good depiction of what it means to be a blogger who suddenly gets a lot of attention.
While Julie Powell may not be a super-heroine, she has achieved something extraordinary twice: First in cooking her way out of the book in a single year (something that still leaves me agog; how do you even manage to eat the leftovers during that time?), but also by writing a compelling memoir of the experience, a perfect treat for foodies and readers alike. See the film (which isn’t all that faithful nor as funny as the book), read the book and cook for yourself.