Books about Julia Child are among my secret reading pleasures. But I was skeptical when I heard about Karen Karbo’s Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life (skirt! Books/Globe Pequot Press). It sounded like yet another gimmicky project, like the blog-book-movie phenomenon, Julie and Julia. I must admit that I enjoyed Julie Powell’s account of her year of cooking every recipe in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; it’s a funny, engaging, stylishly written page-turner. But there’s a quality about it that’s so anti-Julia—an edge of smugness and seeming lack of compassion for, well, humanity. In the first chapter of the book, Powell encounters a mentally ill homeless person on her way home from a bad day at work and casually refers to her as “the loon” half a dozen times in the anecdote that follows.
As the Julie-Julia blog project went viral, Julia, then in her 90s, was reported to have made clear that that she didn’t much care for it. She thought it was a stunt and objected to Powell’s use of foul language. For me, it was that soupçon of insensitivity bubbling up here and there that left me with a bad aftertaste. Julia Child was many things—an obsessive, irreverent maverick, who loved practical jokes—but, judging from all those biographies I’ve read, she wasn’t mean.
Needless to say, I opened Karbo’s book with skepticism, but after the first few pages that feeling had evaporated completely. Karbo has written a hybrid volume that is part biography, part memoir, and part inspirational manual that uses Julia’s life as its template. In ten chapters—each titled with a numbered “rule”—she interweaves bits of Julia’s now-familiar history, with a moral about her approach to living.
Rule No. 2: Play the Emperor.
Rule No. 3: Learn to Be Amused.
And so on. In between, Karbo recounts her own life, her relationship with her mother (an early Julia devotee who faithfully cooked Julia’s recipes every night for dinner) and her relationship with food, cooking and balancing all the expectations and obligations of modern womanhood.
That sounds like heavy stuff, but it isn’t at all. Karbo writes with a painterly eye for detail and a gag-writer’s ear for a punch line. Here’s her memory of what it was like to wait each night for her mother’s Julia-inspired creation to come to the table:
My mother would be standing at the stove, wearing a pair of Capri pants and a short-sleeved cotton shirt (not unlike those worn by Julia on The French Chef) smoking her Viceroy and stirring. The kitchen smelled of onions and butter, or garlic and butter, or what I know now to have been wine and butter. I’d ask when we were going to eat, and she would say soon. But it didn’t mean soon. It meant whenever she was finished stirring. … We usually ate around eight-thirty. I had finished my homework hours earlier and some important TV show was inevitably on at that very moment. I had long since stopped being hungry and had entered the state where your body starts digesting its own organs to stay alive.
You and your inner adolescent can’t help but laugh along in sympathy, even if your mother (like mine) never attempted Tranches de Jambon Morvandelle. At twelve, whose view of the world matches her mother’s? And then, two chapters later, having been thoroughly drawn into the domestic scene Karbo creates, your inner adolescent just might find herself sobbing when the author recalls her mother’s death from a brain tumor at the age of 46, and her last Julia-inspired birthday meal for her apathetic daughter.
If Karbo had only written a memoir of her own life, this would have been a charming book, but it is more than that. That’s because Karbo interprets Julia through a fresh, decidedly feminist, lens. Others have written about how Julia’s height of six feet two inches put a damper on her social prospects, and how she languished, rich but purposeless, until World War II. Then, so the story goes, her wartime service with U.S. intelligence forces in Asia occasioned a fateful meeting with the man who became the love of her life, Paul Child, who didn’t care about the height difference. This is all undoubtedly true, but Karbo puts a different spin on Julia’s height. Her chapter titled “Play the Emperor” refers not only to the roles Julia always got in the amateur theatricals that she loved, but also to the approach to life that she evolved in those years. The tallest girl in the room never got cast as the princess or the ingénue: she was always the lion or the emperor. In Karbo’s telling, instead of gracefully, and quietly, accepting her lot, Julia enthusiastically embraced it, and came to revel in the opportunities it afforded her to steal the show. From this, Karbo extrapolates a rule for living: Play the Emperor.
As Karbo explains, “A woman as tall as Julia could never be transformed by a new dress or a tube of lipstick. No makeover would ever make over the part of her that failed to comply with traditional standards of feminine beauty.” She finds inspiration in Julia’s resilience: “Her practical nature asserted itself, and she realized she had a choice. ‘Why languish as a giantess when it is so much fun to be a myth,’ [Julia] …wrote in her diary. She may have been whistling in the dark, or practicing a sassy attitude, but she seemed to have understood even then that a girl could choose to behave in a way that would distinguish her.” Karbo ends the chapter concluding, “I’m not saying you’re fine the way you are. Julia, certainly, for her time, was not ‘fine’ the way she was. Instead, by embracing all that she was, she redefined fine.”
I wouldn’t exactly say that Julia Child Rules “redefines” Julia, but it does offer up fresh perspectives on our beloved food diva—and maybe even on ourselves. And that’s more than fine.