Julie & Julia by Julie Powell

I came across this book while browsing at the library. I’m not sure it would normally have caught my eye, but a blogger that I read on occassion had recently mentioned it and so when I recognized the cover I casually picked it up. And while the Mr. went off to discover (as he usually does) that there are no computer books on the shelf that he hasn’t read, I found myself being sucked into its vortex. By the end of the first page I was hooked. And I’m a sucker for a powerful hook. Three little sentences at the bottom of the page were all that was needed to cement my interest.

But he hadn’t seen anything yet. His wife, Julia Child, had decided to learn to cook. She was thirty-seven years old.

I closed the cover, checked it out and finished it in just under two days. Typically when I am reading with this kind of focus (and, truth be told, a fair amount of desperation), it is because I am reading for myself. Which is to say, I am reading to discover something vitally important about who I am and what I am doing here. There was something so familiar in this woman’s voice. A sense that life had not quite turned out as planned, not that it was terrible or awful by any means (in fact there were very good things about it — which only serves to make you feel guilty and ungrateful), but it was just disappointing, unfulfilling. And it is very hard to tell the people around you that you feel this way without them taking it personally. Of course it has nothing to do with them, it is such an internal dissatisfaction, but it is a prevasive feeling that seems to slowly and then much more quickly take over your whole life.

So here she was, temping. A secretary. She’d come to New York with thoughts of acting, but nothing had come of it. She didn’t know what she wanted to do or be. There was this sense of being lost, of having no purpose, of not mattering. And no matter how wonderful your partner is (and it sounds like her husband is quite a gem), they can’t help you out of your own internal labyrinth — at least not in the way that romantic comedies would like to make you think. Marriage does not equal happiness, because if you are unhappy with yourself, no one else can make you happy. (Even if they bring you coffee in bed every morning and tell you they love you all the time — yep, my husband is also a gem).

So, he did what he could do. He sent her to visit her mother. He told her that they couldn’t keep living like this (depression, crying jags and anxiety take their toll on a relationship, this I know). And when she returned toting a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Childs and proceeded to use it to make a kick-ass Potage Parmentier (i.e. Potato Leek Soup), he suggested she blog about her culinary endeavors. And blog she did. She set a challenge for herself, cook all 500+ recipes in the Mastering the Art of French Cooking in just one year. Turns out, this insane little project was exactly what she needed.

Prior to this, I had no idea that Julia Childs, culinary goddess, had not discovered her true calling until later in life. As someone who is constantly lamenting her slowness at finding her place in this world or realizing her dreams, I cling with a desperate intensity to stories of people who “make it” after XX years (this number keeps climbing the older I get). It gives me hope that I will write that book or figure out what it is that I am truly passionate about (agriculture, holistic medicine, literature, cooking, nutrition, psychology, etc.).

So, what made this book so compelling? Well, for starters, her voice is real. Something authentic and true. She writes with her own style and an excellent sense of humor. More importantly I found her relatable. I’ve had my own bouts with helplessness and hopelessness, feeling as if I am staring down a long, arduous dead end of a corridor and unable to shake that “this isn’t fair!” sense that life should be about something more than just a job I don’t like and a few moments of distraction in the form of friends and Buffy and a husband and vodka gimlets. I’ve craved a sense of purpose and validity. This book is about all of those things. It isn’t really about French Cuisine at all. As she so aptly puts it,

Without the project I was nothing but a secretary on a road to nowhere.

So, over the course of a year, she literally cooked and blogged her way out of the black hole of despair she’d been living in. In many ways I expected to be disappointed by a very neat and tidy conclusion. I typically frown upon these types of endings — especially when it comes to real life, which is much too open ended and continuous — but sometimes, everything does come together that way and you can put an end to that chapter of the book or that volume in the series. At the end of the book she was different, or maybe it is more accurate to say she was more fully in posession of herself. But along the way, she did a really good job of making sure you saw all the heartache, the joy, the crazy fits of hysteria and the sheer willpower that went into this endeavor. It is a very satisfying book — satisfying in much the same way as a delicious meal crafted with your own two hands and enjoyed with your dearest friends.

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10 Responses to Julie & Julia by Julie Powell

  1. Ramona says:

    Again, not a book I would pick to read, but you have made me want to delve into it.
    I absolutely know what you mean about finding that one thing you are passionate about doing and DOING it.
    Perhaps it is defining the meaning of “making it”. As another in search of the meaning of my own life and how I have mattered, I too, hope it is not too late to discover my passion.

  2. CountessZ says:

    I think you are right the idea of “making it” is in some serious need of definition. We have so many conflicting visions of what it should mean presented to us every day, and as it turns out, the only one that really matters is the one we create for ourselves. I spend the better part of everyday trying to make sure I am not accepting what someone else is telling me my life should be, but it isn’t easy. The best piece of advice, or perhaps nugget of wisdom is a better description, came at the end of the book. It caught me by surprise and it brought tears to my eyes. She said,

    “Julia taught me what it takes to find your way in the world. It’s not what I thought it was. I thought it was all about — I don’t know, confidence or will or luck. Those are all some good things to have, no question. But there’s something else, something that these things grow out of. It’s joy.”

    I like that. And maybe, in the end, experiencing joy is what it’s all about.

  3. Ramona says:

    Oh, Countess Z, you are right, so right. It is all about experiencing joy. No wonder you teared up. Why do we keep forgetting, “It’s joy.”?

  4. kaizerin says:

    I heard or read something about this book and thought it sounded interesting; with your recommendation, it moves to the Must Read list.

    I can certainly relate to the “I’m 30-some years old and doing secretarial work…shouldn’t I be in a “real” career by now?” feeling. But I’m past the point where I can do almost all the things I wanted to do with my professional life–too late for astronaut training, way too late to get in line to be Queen of England–you know, the stuff I’m really suited for. 🙂 So it is comforting to learn about people who ‘made it’–found their life’s work–somewhat later than, say, the 19 years old that seems to be the au currant age for achieving fame and fortune.

    Oh, wait…how did the evil twins, Fame and Fortune, get into the discussion? That’s not what I want at all–I want passion, a occupation to devote myself to, which in turn nourishes my soul and sustains me bodily. Yeah, that’s right! Shut up mass media, with your interchangeable starlets and flavor-of-the-month plagiarist wolf cub authors. I don’t want to be them anyway; quit holding up their standards and trying to confuse them with my own.

    Happy relationship? Check. Happy home? Check. Satisfying career? Well…I’ll keep working on it.

  5. Wendy P says:

    Thanks for your review. I saw this book when it first came out and blithely passed it by. Your review encouraged me to buy it and I’m loving it. It is the perfect book at the perfect time for me.

  6. Ramona the Interested says:

    I am still waiting for my hometown library to retrieve this book for me from the inner/inter/intra? library loan service.
    Would Wendy P please add more to her comments now that she has finished the book?

  7. Ramona the Reader says:

    I must say, I did enjoy this book even if some of the recipes (and the preparation thereof) made me go ugh!
    I agree that Julie speaks from a very authentic voice. Like Clarence, I sometimes thought the f word was overused. But I admire her willingness to share herself – warts, less than perfect housekeeper, democratic self.
    I liked that she was able to keep her own “picture” of her relationship with Julia intact, even if it may not have been accurate.
    She did have a very personal experience with Julia via the cooking.
    I’m wondering what a similar commitment in my own life might lead to. Tho’ not cooking; definitely not cooking.
    A good read. Thank you, Countess Z

  8. kaizerin says:

    Not cooking, Ramona–house restoration! Just keep a journal as you go along and one day, you can write “Under the Iowan Sun” and get it turned into a big deal movie!

  9. CountessZ says:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it Ramona. After I finished the book I wanted to find something that I could make a similar commitment to as well, anything that would allow me to sink my teeth into and use as a tool of self exploration. I envied her focus and her fortitude. It was a rather short lived dream, however. I’m afraid that unless I am really passionate about something or firmly believe in its beneficial nature, I lack the discipline. One night of hysterical crying or a sharp word spoken to my sweetie and I would have broken my own promise to complete the experiment. I would have felt guilty and like a complete failure, but I probably would have stopped. I guess I’m still trying to find that thing which feels like my own calling.

  10. Ramona the Wise says:

    Kai – I’m thinking maybe landscape my yard. I don’t have giant hog weed, but I do have that similar weed, plus creeping charlie and the annoying little plant that comes from feeding niger to the finches.
    I could even turn it into a comedy as I fight the plant eating rabbits and deer!
    Countess Z – I agree with you that the first sign of less than perfection in any project I undertook would lead to a big STOP. I, too, lack the discipline it takes – too many starts and not enough finishes in my life.
    Like you, there is no one thing I feel PASSIONATE about; too many things I am interested in, but not passionately.
    So, is it a lack of discipline? A lack of passion? A lack of commitment? Will that one passionate object just suddenly appear one day as Julie was moved to take her Mom’s cookbook home with her?
    I think of the authors who didn’t write until their 70’s; the painters who didn’t paint until their 80’s. I don’t want to leave it that long. Nor do I want to wait until my husband dies as one woman I know did. She made a three year comittment to volunteer in an African country.
    It’s still out there. I know it is. Which is why, when I did the excercise of defining myself in one word, the definition was seeker. (Describe yourself in 15 words, cut that until you have the five most impt, then cut that until you have one.)
    As I told Kai, the only thing I’m really passionate about anymore is reading.
    Blog on you two. Who else can have me reading outside my comfort zone? Honestly, Neverwhere?

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