At first glance, Julie and Julia, a book just out from the Penguin imprint Fig Tree, seems an unremarkable food memoir, little different from any of the other "story of my life through the dishes I've eaten" books being published (and believe me, there are quite a few). On closer inspection, however, it turns out to be more than this. By sneakily combining several of the elements currently required to excite non-fiction publishers, its author has, perhaps inadvertently, written an offbeat parable of our times.
Julie Powell was a 29-year-old from Texas living in New York, working as an office temp and feeling generally sorry for herself when she made the sort of kooky, spur-of-the-moment decision that only a certain type of New Yorker makes: she decided to spend a year cooking her way through Julia Child's monumental Mastering the Art of French Cooking. For those unfamiliar with Child, she was America's answer to Elizabeth David - the woman responsible for bringing Gallic gastronomic sophistication to the US. Mastering the Art . . . contains 524 recipes, many of them highly complex; Powell had a day job, a tiny kitchen and a low income. The task she set herself, in other words, was quite a challenge, but, urged on by her husband, she attacked it with gusto and wrote up her endeavours as a blog.
Almost immediately, the blog started attracting readers - and was soon making a name for Powell in the non-virtual world, too. The New York Times wrote an article about her; she was interviewed on CNN. And then, as her project drew to a close, came the final, inevitable reward: a six-figure book deal.
Julie and Julia is a parable of our times because it enacts the contemporary rags-to-riches story of the nonentity who starts a blog and ends up a celebrity. That it is also a food book, and takes the form of a year-long quest, makes it even more of the moment. But what is it like to read? It isn't hard to see why Powell was a popular blogger: her writing is spunky, wildly digressive and appealingly self-deprecating. You can't help thinking she'd be a fun person to know.
Yet the qualities that make a good blog aren't always those that make a good book. The defining feature of a blog is that it unfolds in real time. Julie makes steak with bone marrow; she writes it up; people read about it the next day. There is no need for any shaping, because the structure is provided by the quest. It's not like that with a book - books need more architecture, more of a narrative running through them. Julie and Julia isn't simply a rehash of Powell's blog; she has done some shaping. But the result is not entirely successful. Much of the time, it reads like a dish composed of many, individually attractive ingredients, but which adds up to less than the sum of its parts.