Books: Dearie

I suppose being part of a book club does not mean that you have to read every book the club reads. But that’s how I am – if I’m in the group, I read the books. So while I was not happy to find out that this month’s book was a biography of Julia Child, I made myself read the book anyway.

The prologue of Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child made me think I’d been wrong to think I wouldn’t enjoy the book. Reading about the preparation for her first TV appearance was very interesting. I looked forward to reading more about how she demonstrated cooking on TV, and learning a bit about the life experiences that brought her to that point.

Instead, I found myself slogging through chapter after chapter detailing events that happened long before she ever thought of learning to cook. Some family background is necessary, especially since her having been born into a wealthy family is significant. But there is way more information than I was interested in about her father’s family, her mother’s family, the founding of Pasadena, what her childhood was like, what her schooling was like, what her jobs prior to her marriage were like…

I got the impression – as I have with other biographies (a genre I tend to avoid in large part for this reason) – that the author felt a need to include as much of his research as possible. If the goal is a scholarly tome with a comprehensive analysis of every aspect of a person’s life, perhaps that would make sense.

But as one of the women in the book club asked, who did Bob Spitz think the audience for his book would be? If it’s the average reader with some interest in Julia Child the TV personality and cookbook author, this book has way too much detail on peripheral aspects of her life.

A good writer (or maybe a good editor) would find a way to include enough background to show how and why Julia’s life took the twists and turns that it did, without burdening the reader with unwanted detail. Then the bulk of the book could be devoted to the things that are most interesting – how she learned to cook, the immense amount of work she put into the cookbook, and of course her appearances on TV.

Those were the parts of the book that really did interest me. (Though even there, some judicious editing could have improved matters.) I’ve never had the slightest interest in gourmet cooking, but Julia’s emphasis on how much more food could be enjoyed if it were really cooked well made me think. I even checked the library for her cookbook (no luck).

At the book club, we talked quite a bit about why people responded so positively to her cookbook and TV show. It was an era of breaking with traditionalism – why would people want to learn traditional French cooking? Women were looking for career opportunities – why would they want to spend more time in the kitchen? People were enjoying TV dinners (I certainly did – I thought they were way better than my mother’s cooking) – why take all the time and effort to cook things from scratch?

Undoubtedly Julia Child’s personality was a huge factor. She simply connected with viewers in a way that made them want more. She was funny, she was “real” – she made people think that if she could do this, so could they. And apparently even unusual her voice appealed to people.

I have never seen a single one of her shows, but I’m thinking that’s a gap in my cultural education that needs to be filled.

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