“The subject of his book was umami, a Japanese word that translates as “perfection”, usually as it relates to food. Umami also translates as “the fifth taste”, best described for Westerners as “savory”. The other tastes are sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Umami is the feeling of mouthwatering deliciousness during, and complete satiety after, a good meal.” – from Perfection, by Julie Metz
Julie and her husband Henry have moved to the suburbs and are making a new life for themselves with their six-year old daughter Liza. Henry is writing a book exploring the concept of umami, while Julie, a graphic designer, works from home. Though their marriage is troubled, they seem committed to sticking it out. Julie soon faces something that she had never planned on when Henry dies suddenly of a heart attack- a life alone. In the ensuing devastation, Julie lets her brother sort through her late husband’s estate while she fully immerses herself in the grieving process. Thinking that she is receiving visitations from Henry, Julie looks to Tomas, a young neighbor whom she and Henry had befriended, to act as the conduit to Henry’s spirit. Julie embarks on an affair with Tomas while struggling with Henry’s sudden death and the small-town disapproval of her new relationship.
Then Julie finally finds out what her lover, brother and several of her friends already know from organizing Henry’s personal effects- that not only was Henry having affairs with several women across the country, but he was also having an affair with one of the couple’s friends. Yikes! Henry quickly becomes the not so dearly departed and Julie goes all out to confront the women whom she feels have wronged her personally,and who should have respected her marriage. The memoir goes on to viscerally detail the painstaking process of the discovery of betrayal and the monumental anger and hard sought forgiveness which, though slow to come, allows Julie to piece together the beginnings of a new and meaningful life.
I have to admit that when I first started reading this book I was immediately hooked by the descriptions of …you guessed it, the food. Henry is writing a book on umami, so he is on a constant hunt to find or create perfect food, among his hunt for other things, and he is a great cook. The books opens up on Henry and Julie crankily preparing for a dinner party thrown in their home in honor of the New Year, shortly before Henry’s death. The meal is absolutely mouth-watering and I loved reading about the preparation of it even though conspicuous in the passages are the thick and underlying tensions in Julie and Henry’s fragile marriage.
Perfection, by Julie Metz is as intense as anything that I have ever read and I felt so much compassion while reading Metz’s daringly honest portrayal of the ugly aftermath of Henry’s death and revealed affairs. She had just lost everything and then in addition she is forced to face the destruction of the memory of her marriage. I can only imagine the rage and the betrayal that she must have felt, and how doubly hard it must have been not to even have the opportunity to vent that anger to the offending party, but she doesn’t leave much to be imagined. Metz is absolutely unflinching as she explores the dark and the light in her feelings and journey toward wholeness. She teeters between self -righteousness and feeling justified in the rage, which she can’t rain down on her husband, to grief and despair.
Metz spends punishing months reading Henry’s calendars and diary entries, painstakingly piecing together a timeline and details of Henry’s numerous affairs all while spiraling in self-hatred and doubt until she reaches the next stage, vengeance, and finally through that to reach peace. She explores the origins of her troubled marriage, Henry’s examinations into his own troubled psyche and how his larger-than-life persona and her own self-deception played a dominant hand in shaping their marriage.
My emotions definitely flitted around as I read this- angry for her, and sometimes angry at her- this is an engaging memoir and it constantly proves itself with Metz’s exquisite language and honesty in writing about her feelings. This is a book that forces you to have an opinion and to examine choices that we make everyday in our relationships, and how we shape them through what we accept and what we refuse to see.
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I usually love it when books make me feel strong emotions and make me grapple with why I think the way I do in certain areas. I don’t always like it at the time, but I usually come around and appreciate the process of interacting with a book in that way. How do you feel about books that make you feel? Do you like it? What books have left you all tied up in knots? Do you think they do that to everybody or just you?