When I think of what makes a novel enjoyable I decide that a good novel should be so believable that you could take it for non-fiction. The author must create the world so exactly that you loose yourself in it and find yourself hours later wondering if it really was fiction. This, I believe, is the sign of a good novel.
But what about non-fiction? I find that the non-fiction books I enjoy are enjoyable because their stories are so incredible that I find myself hours later wondering it it really was non-fiction.
Which is why I was so delighted by As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto (Selected and Edited by Joan Reardon. Spanning over 400 pages and almost a decade these are the collected letters exchanged between Julia Child (who needs no introduction) and Avis DeVoto (wife of Bernard DeVoto and impressive woman in her own right) starting from Julia’s letter to Bernard. That first letter was received by Avis, who acted as her husband’s secretary, and was responded to warmly. Julia wrote back. Then Avis. Then Julia. Soon they were dear friends (dear friends who did not meet in person for over two years) and Avis became a sort of shepard for Julia and Simca’s manuscript in America.
The story contained in this gorgeous book is not just the tale of the manuscript that Julia would refer to as “Gargantua”. Throughout these letters my heart was truly warmed by the love and friendship that grew between these two women. But it is not just a story of friendship either. Their friendship begins as McCarthyism is sweeping the nation and as two liberals with friends and family both supporting McCarthy and being hunted by McCarthy their letters contain riveting tales of the time.
I do have a few minor quibbles though. For starters there are times where I felt the book was unfairly slanted towards Julia (a woman who I love greatly for what it’s worth). The cover bears a photo featuring just the well-known woman and the title As Always, Julia (emphasis added) feels as though the book is from her eyes, after reading the book I feel confident that there are many other quotes that could have been selected. Of course, I am no expert on book printing (though I could understand that sales might be helped by more prominently showing the more famous of the two) so take that complaint with a grain of salt. However (I’m going to complain just a wee bit more), the photos on the inside and the little vignettes about the important events happening around them (vignettes I found to be indispensable) also seem to be tilted towards Julia though I found Avis’ life to be equally absorbing.
One last little bit of kvetching. The layout of the photos among the letters I found to be slightly awkward. Often times the photos (though they were quite lovely) depicted people and events referred to in past (and sometimes future) letters and there were times where I found myself momentarily loosing myself as I tried to place the scenes. Also, Ms. Reardon’s footnotes I often felt to be useful and with just the right amount of detail without distracting from the flow of the letters but there were times where there would be pages without a footnote when I felt at least one could have been needed. But these are petty.
On the note of the book’s appearance. Beautiful! The cover is bright and cheerful and makes me think of the 1950s while the inside is similarly well laid out. It might be more economical to purchase this as an e-book but I would be more than willing to plonk down the extra bucks for this in hardcover.
As Always, Julia is a book that only for Julia Child fanatics but one I’d recommend for casual food lovers, those interested in the 1950s and anyone who likes a good tale of friendship.
4.5 stars out of 5.