There are few things more irresistible than a story of transformation. Some middle-aged lug who suddenly gets up off the sofa and starts to train for a marathon, or who feels she is at heart a wine connoisseur — and then becomes one.
Julia Child’s 2006 memoir, My Life in France, tells the story of a person who already has an enviable life — happily married, rich, well educated, free as a bird — yet who is, nonetheless, in search of transformation, the kind that inspires disciplined, determined drive. To discover, to learn, to master, to grow, to become someone else.
It’s rare that someone, anyone, would arrive in France, sample some delectable dishes, and then decide to go to the Cordon Bleu and really learn French cooking. All kinds of things would get in the way of that plan, even if one had the time and the money to hand – not knowing French, maybe, or the calves’ feet, the aspic, the brains. The medieval strangeness of 1940s Paris. The basement kitchen at the Cordon Bleu, in the bowels of the city.
But Julia Child has a special quality that allows her to sally forth in ease, equally at home in French marketplaces or intimidating restaurants. It leaps from every page of her book: a blend of confidence, humour, curiosity, and delight in the new. She had what the French call, quite rightly, joie de vivre.
Julia Child, at 6’2”, towered over her French counterparts, couldn’t find a single item of clothing to fit, didn’t speak a word of the language, and yet just…carried on, imperturbable, enjoying everything. She learns French, somehow, and then, in love with French food, follows it deep into the mystery, the very heart of French tradition.
Her memoir details, with great humour, what it is to have a consuming passion, one that transforms an already good life into a spectacular one, producing the ten-years-in-the-making, two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the masterpiece that made Julia Child a household name.
That book inspired another, much more ordinary life. Julie Powell’s 2002 “Julie/Julia Project” started as a blog, motivated by the all-too-common FOMO — fear of missing out. On the cusp of 30, left behind by a value-free circle of frenemies, Julie mus take stock of her receding surroundings: far from arriving in Paris, she and her husband have had to move out of New York to the far reaches of Queens. Her days are consumed with a dismal office job she doesn’t like to admit she actually has. In the midst of all this, a volume of Julia Child’s gourmet feasts appears, holding out its promise of transformation.
Vowing to cook the entire book, Julie Powell finds a regimen, and a sense of purpose, that transforms dreary days into ones filled with delight.
The real point of the exercise this time is not the cooking. It’s the writing. Julie Powell hears Julia Child’s trilling, lively, forgiving voice, and it helps her to find her own. She crafts direct, down-to-earth writing that links glamour, food, and ambition to the drudgery and repetition of real life. Powell soon found thousands of regular readers, and the blog became a full-fledged memoir. Funny and beguiling, it tells the story of a place and a time — New York in the 2000s — as well as a person. It also transformed food writing.
All of this was enough to speak to director Nora Ephron, who brings the two together in the 2009 film, Julie and Julia.
Ephron is celebrated for romantic comedies — When Harry met Sally among others — but she was also a hilarious memoirist in her own right. She brings to this material a New Yorker’s sense of both class difference and sameness. The film details visually Julie and Julia’s worlds apart. Julia Child’s is quite simply lavish. She and her husband import a turquoise car to Paris. One unforgettable scene shows it dangling from a crane as it is hoisted off their ocean liner. The couple rents a two-storey apartment in the center of the city filled with mirrors and gilt furniture, and complete with femme de menage. They splurge on dinners out and in, seem already to know all the best wines, and host vivid parties for accomplished friends.
Julie, on the other hand is at war with her dark, cramped surroundings, endless subway rides, and an unforgiving office job that consists of answering the telephone to cranks. And yet. Both Julie and Julia have difficult parents, fail to conceive, are happily married, and spend a great deal of energy and time moving, accommodating, and making do. Ephron’s film moves in and out of these oddly parallel lives, finding what two utterly dissimilar characters, in radically different times and places, nevertheless have in common. The desire, not to have more, but to be more.