Julie Bestry's Reviews > As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, and the Making of a Masterpiece

As Always, Julia by Joan Reardon
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Mar 11, 2011

it was amazing
Read from March 11 to 20, 2011

Oh my goodness, this was an unexpectedly good book. Obviously I thought it might be worth a flip-through, or I wouldn't have reserved it at the library and read it, but I honestly didn't expect "As Always, Julia" to be so darn good. And the best part isn't even Julia, but Avis! (No, not the car rental company.)

Subtitled "Food, Friendship & the Making of a Masterpiece" is an epistolary memoir. I love epistolary novels, and enjoyed the letters of John & Abigail Adams, but never figured I'd be all that stoked for a book of letters between Julia Child and a woman of whom I'd never heard. I'm not even a Julia Child fan and I don't cook. But I did find Julia's to be the more interesting of the sections in Julie Powell's "Julie & Julia", which is what prompted me to read Julia Child's autobiography, "My Life In France" last year. It wasn't the cooking, but the relationship between Julia and Paul Child, and between Julia and her co-writers, and the travelogue aspect of that book that I loved. But "As Always, Julia" grabbed me and never let me go.

Don't like cooking? It doesn't matter! (Though if you don't like food, some aspects may bore you.) This is pen-palling at its best. It's the evolving tale of Julia in Europe and Avis, wife of Bernard Devoto, an author who, though I consider myself well-read and well-informed), was unknown to me. The book is a damned hoot. It's just the rambling letters, in the days before international or even long-distance calls were common. They write of their lives, their pains, their husbands, their work (as both women were brilliant, if unconventional "business women"), Avis' children, Julia's travels.

You could read it just for the soap operatic quality of their lives, or for the decade-plus slow and sometimes-backwards progress Julia and her writing partners (the daft Louisette and the formidable Simca) made towards the eventual publishing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (If you know even a teeny bit about the history of the book, by the time Judith Jones makes her first, off-handed reference appearance, you're ready to whoop & holler with the realization that "NOW we're getting somewhere!"

What I found most staggering about the book was that as the letters weave their way through the lives of Julia and Avis, they also weave world history into the narratives. Nobody appalled at the political upheaval and division in modern life will look at the 1950s stories of McCarthyism and Eisenhower and Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson without taking a cautiously optimistic breath and realizing it's not really THAT much worse now.

And that's it -- food, politics, personal revelations (of a not very deep, but very realistic type) make up this juicy double-memoir. Editor Joan Reardon includes so many footnotes that sometimes it feels like an academic journal. It doesn't detract from the writing, but I imagine someone completely clueless about the existence of the Cuban Missile Crisis or Army-McCarthy hearings might find it useful not to have to trudge to Wikipedia to make sense of what they should have learned in school. Imagine if, 50 years from now, someone came across our emails or Facebook walls and could marvel at the seamless blending of our troubles figuring out how to handle a plumbing problem and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and our challenges at work and our worries about whether our adult children will ever settle down in one career and get married.

No book is as good as one that surprises you with how much you come to care about the characters with in, and though real-life people, Avis and Julia (and their friends and families) are intriguing characters about which I'd like to know more, not because they were special or famous, but because they are so darn relevant and real.
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