Julie Powell's new book is not for the squeamish, in more ways than one.
It opens with her in the back of a butcher shop, flecked with blood and reeking of meat. She's busy slicing a raw, slippery liver with a foot-long knife.
By the end of the book, another internal organ — her heart — has been filleted: Powell dissects the pain caused by her two-year affair with an old college flame that sent her into an emotional tailspin and almost sunk her marriage.
It's all a bit, well, messy. What happened to our spunky blogger and best-selling author with a "sainted husband" who spent a year making Julia Child's food, the young woman whose story made up half of the charming Nora Ephron-directed film "Julie & Julia"?
Powell, in an interview at a coffee shop near her Queens home, admits readers may find her sophomore effort — titled "Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession" — a bit jarring.
"People coming from the movie 'Julie & Julia' and picking up 'Cleaving' are going to be in for some emotional whiplash," she says, laughing. "I don't believe it's going to be a Nora Ephron movie."
'My actions were not justifiable'While there are a dozen or so recipes, this is definitely not a cook book. Instead, Powell reveals the pain of loving two men at once, of her fondness for sadomasochism and even a bout of self-punishing sex with a stranger.
"It's darker in certain ways, definitely," says Powell's editor, Judith Clain. "But I guess, for me, I wouldn't have been interested in a sort of sweet sequel to the first book. To me, it wouldn't have been as interesting."
Powell, 36, began her affair in 2004 as she was putting the finishing touches on her first book, a time she writes she was "starry-eyed and vaguely discontented and had too much time on my hands." By 2006, she had landed an apprenticeship at a butcher shop two hours north of New York City, which offered an escape from her crumbling marriage and a place to explore her childhood curiosity with butchers.
Why butchers? She says she's always been attracted to their authority, machismo and mysterious skills. "The way they held a knife in their hand was like an extension of themselves," she says. "I'm a very clumsy person. I don't play sports. That kind of physical skill is really foreign to me and I'm really envious of that."
In the book, Powell alternates tales of how she learned to slice pork loins and break down sides of beef with graphic details about cheating on her husband, who finds out about the betrayal and embarks on his own affair in response. The Powells somehow stay together, miserably.
"My goal is to stay honest and to stay close to the bone," she says in the interview. "My actions were not particularly justifiable, but I needed to explore where they were coming from and what that was all about."
Her prose explores the link between butchering and her own tortured romantic life. At one point, while cutting the connective tissue on a pig's leg, she writes: "It's sad, but a relief as well, to know that two things so closely bound together can separate with so little violence, leaving smooth surfaces instead of bloody shreds."
'I never want to be complacent again'
Things seemed much sunnier in 2003 when the former secretary became an Internet darling after blogging for a year about making every recipe in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Her husband, endlessly encouraging, washed the dishes.
The result was the 2005 book "Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen," which became part of last summer's hit film "Julie & Julia." But Powell, who was portrayed in the movie by the winsome Amy Adams, had a dark secret by then.
The way she had described her home life in the book — and adopted by the film — made her squirm, in light of the subsequent affair. "My interpretation of my own marriage had been too easy and then it had been set forth as this paragon of the institution. It's not that simple," she says.
"I never want to be that complacent again. I'm never going to call my marriage 'fixed.' I'm never going to call it anything. It's where it is right now. And right now, we're doing really well." (Both her husband and ex-lover granted legal permission to be depicted.)
While writing her new book, Powell's relationship with meat changed. She's no longer afraid of offal — in fact, she says she just had blood sausage for lunch — and her appreciation for the taste of a quality cut has deepened.
"I'm less prone to gussy it up," she says.
And her butchering experience has actually resulted in her eating less meat. "I only want to eat the stuff that I know where it comes from," she says. Her insistence on local, humanely raised meat means she often goes vegetarian at a restaurant unless she's certain where her steak came from.
Her new book is the latest to tap into the growing interest in old school butchery, an offshoot of the farm-to-table movement and a reaction to large meat processors, also currently explored in Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals."
"People want to get their hands dirty. People want to participate in the process. People want to know where their food is coming from," says Powell. "People don't want the mystery any more."
Speaking of mystery, now that there's very little of that left in her own personal life, Powell is asked what's next for her. It turns out to be a new direction.
"I think I'm going to get out of the memoir game for a little bit," she says with a wan smile. "I'd love to work in fiction. Write a novel — that was my goal when I was young and I'd like to get back to it."