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Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I much enjoyed the collection of essays and journalistic pieces by Nora Ephron published in 2006 under the title I Feel Bad About my Neck. And I was aware of the writer’s career in journalism and in film, especially the screenplay for When Harry met Sally. But I had never read her novel Heartburn. I was a little surprised that it was referred to by Cathy Rentzenbrink in her memoir: Dear Reader: the comfort and Joy of Books. And then I noticed that it had also been chosen by the journalist Dolly Alderton in What Writers Read. You can find the link to the post about these two books here. As Heartburn was so strongly recommended in these two books I felt I should correct my failure to read it. Here are my thoughts.

Heartburn

Heartburn is the ‘thinly disguised’ story of Nora Ephron’s breakup from her second husband, (in real life) Carl Bernstein who was having an affair with Margaret Jay. Nora Ephron was 7 months pregnant at the time. So far, so autobiographical. 

In the introduction to the edition I used, written 25 years later, she complains that people refer to it as a ‘thinly disguised novel’. She points out that Philip Roth and John Updike ‘picked away at the carcasses of their early marriages in book after book’ but were not ‘hit with the thinly disguised thing’. The criticism is mostly applied to books written by women, she observed.

My mother taught me many things when I was growing up, but the main thig I learned from her is that everything is copy. She said it again and again, and I have quoted her saying it again and again. As a result, I knew the moment my marriage ended that someday it might make a book – if I could just stop crying. One of the things I am proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is. (Introduction)

Heartburn is full of pain, hurt, anguish and crying. The narrator is Rachel, a food writer and she tells the reader of the six weeks that followed the discovery of her husband Mark’s affair with an unbelievably tall woman. She has been living in Washington DC, where her husband is a political journalist, but she feels DC is less interesting than her native New York. 

The novel follows her immediate flight to New York from Washington, her return to patch things up, and her eventual permanent removal to New York after the birth of her second child. She is ready to ‘begin to forget’.

The humour in the novel comes from some situations and some comments on the events. We also have some recipes: cheesecake, Key lime pie (which plays a satisfying role in the final scene), linguine alla cecca, Lillian Hellman’s pot roast and an almost sacred but certainly secret recipe for vinaigrette.

The characters in this novel are drawn from 1970s intellectual East Coast milieu: they appear to have a great deal of money, maids and childcare whenever they need it, flying frequently on the shuttle from New York to DC and back again, several properties, psychiatric help and they mix with people in the forefront of national politics and with the journalists who report on all of the above. They are not troubled by climate change, popularism, third world problems, or any of those things that make us so anxious today.

But that doesn’t stop Nora Ephron from finding the humour in many situations. Perhaps the funniest is that her group (an encounter group run by her psychiatrist) is held up at gun point by a man Rachel had been flirting with on the subway. It turns out to be a key plot element as he steals the extremely expensive diamond ring that Mark gave Rachel when their first child was born. It was worth $15,000 dollars and eventually provides Rachel with the wherewithall to leave her marriage. The robbery itself interrupts gentle bickering in the group. Rachel is taken hostage by the gunman with the nylon stocking mask and demands valuables. She digresses from the fact that he was holding her with a gun to her temple to tell us about Mark’s behaviour at Sam’s birth, for two pages. It’s a masterclass in mixing drama and humour and creating suspense as she tells us that when she went into labour she had been afraid that Mark would turn into

the kind of hopeless father who goes through the whole business under the delusion that it’s as much his experience as it is yours. All this starts in Lamaze classes … (57)

There is quite a bit of wisecracking. I wondered how to describe it and was thinking that New York humour would cover it when I read this. 

I’m not exactly a conventional television personality, although I suppose I am somewhat conventional when it comes to public television, which is what my show was on, not network. ‘Too New York’ is what the last network that was approached about me responded, which is a cute way of being anti-Semitic, but who cares? I’d rather be too New York than too anything else. (16)

Risking being accused of antisemitism I can say it is Jewish humour. Fast, verbal, clever and funny. It often involves repetitions of phrases, or reversals of nouns in sentences, or long lists of unrelated objects. For example, her obstetrician asks her, as she is about to leave hospital after the birth, ‘Do you believe in love?’

Sometimes I believe that love dies but hope springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that hope dies but love springs eternal, Sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals love, and sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals good sex. Sometimes I believe that love is as natural as the tides, and sometimes I believe that love is an act of will. Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it. Sometimes I believe that love is essential, and sometimes I believe that the only reason love is essential is that otherwise you spend all your time looking for it.
‘Yes,” I said. ‘I do.’ (165)

Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941, Nora Ephron grew up in a Jewish family of writers, journalists and scriptwriters. She graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in political science and then tried to get a job as a writer on Newsweek. They did not employ female writers. So she began writing for other journals: New York Post, Esquire among them. Her second husband was Carl Bernstein, whose name will forever be linked to Watergate and the exposure of former President Nixon (see All the President’s Men with Bob Woodward).

Along with her journalism, Nora Ephron became known for her screenplays and later became a director in her own right. Her third marriage, to screenplay writer Nicholas Pileggi, lasted until her death in 2012.

After I had finished Heartburn, I watched the film Sleepless in Seattle (1993), which you may remember ends happily in New York at the top of the Empire State Building. It was written and directed by Nora Ephron.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron, first published in 1983. I used the Virago Classic Edition (from 1996) with an introduction by Nora Ephron after 25 years. 179pp

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