Tag Archives: Jewish

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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Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

To begin with I thought Mr Skeffington was about ageing. It was recommended as an addition to the older women in fiction series. Then I thought it was about how pre-war society calculated a woman’s value by her looks and how losing her beauty meant losing her status. Then this book turned very dark, with a denouement suitable for the time of publication – 1940. It is about all these things, moving from one theme to another, sometimes in a rather schematic way.

Mr Skeffington

At the start of the novel Fanny Skeffington is rich, approaching 50 and recovering from a bout of Diphtheria. She was rich because of the generous settlement of her husband at their divorce following his infidelities. As she recovers, she finds herself thinking of him a great deal, even imagining him in her house, behind the fish-dish.

Fanny, who had married Mr Skeffington, and long ago, for reasons she considered compelling, divorced him, after not having given him a thought for years, began, to her surprise to think of him a great deal. If she shut her eyes, she could see him behind the fish-dish at breakfast; and presently, even if she didn’t shut her eyes, she could see him behind almost anything. (1)

Up until this point she has been beautiful and men have loved her for it and she basked in their admiration. Fanny enjoyed her independence, which meant being rich and therefore not obliged to remarry.

She seeks the advice of her former admirers in order to set her life right again, which means no longer seeing Mr Skeffington in her house and regaining the admiration of admirers. Here is the formulaic aspect of the novel. She meets her admirers in turn and each one thinks how her beauty is ruined and they no longer wish to put themselves out for her. They recognize no qualities in her, only that she is no longer a beauty. 

Fanny comes to realise that she has lost her looks, and that her beauty was an empty commodity.

Beauty; beauty. What was the good of beauty, once it was over? It left nothing behind it but acid regrets, and no heart at all to start fresh. Nearly everything else left something. Husbands, for instance, left, or ought to leave children, and then one could be busy with them, and with their children. It was, she felt, one of her most just grievances against Job [her former husband] that she was childless. (57)

She finds it hard to know what she can do with her life, her beauty gone, no children or grandchildren to be interested in and her cousins wanting to provide her with a quiet party to celebrate her half century. 

The novel follows Fanny as she is gradually disabused of her value to society, of her beauty and she begins to take account of her advancing years as she meets strangers and former acquaintances and admirers. These meetings are the occasion for a great deal of gentle and comic writing. For example the sister of Miles, an especially eloquent admirer who has become an inspirational preacher in Bethnal Green, is led to believe she is a fallen woman – a prostitute, which in some senses she has been. Then there is the leerily disgusting colonial, a man used to getting his way at all times, who has come back to reclaim and marry the Fanny he remembers, only to fail to recognise her. As they disabuse her of her former powers, she comes to more fully appreciate her strengths. 

Job Skeffington is Jewish. In the early part of the novel we learn that he found it easy to attract money, and her marriage to him helped Fanny to secure her own family’s financial stability. There are also many references to the European Situation, which we learn is bad and getting worse. Finally Fanny learns from George that Mr Skeffington had been in Vienna

Vienna wasn’t exactly a healthy place for a Jew, and he was soon in serious trouble – for a moment George didn’t seem able to go on, seemed to be staring, with horror in his eyes, at something he could hardly credit, – such serious trouble that he was lucky to get away with his bare life, if bare life, said George, his eyes full of that incredulous horror, could be called lucky, and was now in London, and on the rocks. (221) 

By the time her friend and cousin George brings Mr Skeffington to her in person she finds herself able to understand how her life might have more meaning in the future than she had feared. She wants a future being of use to him.

The Older Women in Fiction series features women over 60, so Fanny does not qualify being about to turn 50. But this novel is about ageing and how women brought up to trade on their looks have little currency if that is all they have. Fanny turns out to be made of more.

Elizabeth von Arnim

This was Elizabeth von Arnim’s final novel. She died in 1941 at the age of 74, having escaped the European war for America. She seems to celebrate independent woman, and then to criticise those who value beauty in a woman above all else. But the novel ends on a note warning against valuing appearances. It is somewhat uneven in its tone, with plenty of gentle humour and also a very sombre tone to end as Mr Skeffington returns.

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1940 and reissued by Virago in 1993. 233pp

Related posts

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (on Bookword in August 2017)

Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings reviewed Mr Skeffington and remembered the 1944 film starring Bette Davies and Claude Rains.

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The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

The current trend of using ‘girl’ in titles continues to rile me. It carries more than a trace of condescension. This novel is the story by a woman in her 80s, hardly a girl. However it was recommended. It does not present as a potboiler, or who dunnit, so I gave it a go. 

The Boston Girl  is the 42ndin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. This novel was recommended to me twice recently: by someone who read my blogs on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative in August, and by my sister, who kindly sent me a copy to read.

The Boston Girl

An 85-year-old woman, Addie Baum, is asked by her granddaughter to talk about how she got to be the woman she is today (in 1985). In reply she narrates the story of her life, lived mostly in Boston. Addie was born in 1900 into an immigrant Jewish family. They were poor and had already lost two children. When Addie begins her story her older sister, Betty, has not long left the family home to live on her own. A second sister, Celia, is frail and much protected by her father. Neither parent finds happiness in Boston and there is little kindness in their household. Addie is the only one born in the new country. She is determined to do well despite their tragedies and their poverty.

Addie does well at school, but the family are so poor that she has to leave after only a year at high school. Things improve slightly for the family when Celia marries a widower, Levine, inheriting his two young sons. But marriage, step-mothering and keeping a household are beyond Celia and she commits suicide.

Gradually the events of Addie’s life improve due in part to her friendships with other young women, which last a lifetime and which sustain and motivate her. There are her failed love affairs and then her meeting with her future husband, a lawyer defending children in employment. Her own employments begin with office work and moves into journalism, and finally to social work in support of children. The author refers to the significance of Abbie’s resilience on her website. But her connections and the necessity of earning a living seem to be as important in determining her decisions.

The final years are swiftly dealt with. The interest is largely in her life before her marriage.

The chief influences are of immigration, Jewishness and being female. This novel is not about an older woman so much as what happened to this older woman before she arrived at the age of 85.

Addie Baum at 85

The granddaughter’s question is not answered in any depth: how Addie got to be the woman she is today. Her Jewishness, her gender and the times she lived in which she lived are hardly credited with being part of the answer. At heart this is a feelgood novel, a young girl finds her way to eventual happiness despite early poverty and some bad experiences. The short chapters make it an easy and enjoyable read.

Reading it did provoke me to wonder how I would answer the same question. 

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant, first published in 2014. I read the edition by  Simon & Schuster. 392pp

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford (guest post)

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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