There are many theories on what makes people happy, and just as many (if not more) self-help books. I should know; I worked in a bookstore, and had to shelve books with titles such as “Crappy to Happy” and “Learning to Love Yourself”. But the only one of these theories that I ever thought actually made sense was outlined in a book called Flow. The premise is that we are at our happiest when pursuing an activity or goal that is neither too easy nor too difficult, but which offers us a challenge and a focus.
Julie Powell probably never read Flow, but she innately understood that she needed a challenge to lift her out of the doldrums. Her job as a secretary was unsurprisingly unfulfilling, and she was angsty over the thought of her approaching 30th birthday. The challenge she undertook, for anyone unfamiliar with the book, was to cook every recipe in Julia Child‘s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 in a year, and to blog about the experience. As she made her way through “The Project”, she gained readers who cheered her on, and also gained a strange sort of strength which propelled her forward, even when she felt she wanted to throw in the tea-towel.
Julie & Julia came out a few years ago when I was still working at the bookstore, and I didn’t read it then, partly based on a co-worker’s review that it “wasn’t that great”. However, when we decided to have a MtAoFC theme for a recent blogger event, I picked it up from the library out of curiosity. A fellow blogger had commented that she was turned off by the author’s voice, and I can’t say I totally blame her- she tends towards shrill and whiny at times, and when she describes certain hissy fits, you wonder how her saintly-sounding husband doesn’t crack and either lose his temper or walk out. But, as with most memoirs, I’d like to think there is some creative exaggeration going on (and I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t occasionally had similar fits of frustration in the kitchen). That said, the book isn’t always whiny, of course, and there are parts where Powell displays a keen wit and sarcasm.
I found the book entertaining despite the occasional hysteria over a failed crêpe or what-have-you, and I had respect verging on awe for someone who found the energy to shop for and cook a full meal several times a week after working all day and commuting from the outer boroughs. I also identified with someone who, although smart and capable, found herself dissatisfied with the fact that life is not all she thought it would be, and wonders how to save herself from dull oblivion. I don’t know that cooking would work for everyone, but it certainly worked for her, with the completely unexpected results of getting national attention and press, a book deal, and even a movie deal.
One thing I rather liked about Julie is that although she took on a cooking project, she didn’t seem particularly like a “foodie” (prior to the Project, she had never even eaten an egg!!), and I don’t think she ever considered her blog a “food blog”. I almost got the impression that the challenge could have been anything, like building a model replica of Westminster Abbey, or memorizing all the plays of Shakespeare. She does develop a reverence for Julia Child, though, and the passages in the book where she imagines Julia’s life are the most well-written. I actually got a little teary-eyed when reading how, at the end of the Project, someone tells her that Julia Child has heard of what she is doing and has a negative opinion of her; it must have been heartbreaking.
In the end, regardless of the elder Julia’s opinion, Julie Powell has the last laugh. She was able to quit her job as a secretary, and is now a full-fledged freelance writer (check out her post-Project blog here). It just goes to show that the most important catalyst for change is movement; you never know when a project intended to save your sanity could end up opening up a world of unexpected possibility.