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Heartburn - Nora Ephron

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Author: Nora Ephron / 192 pages / Publisher: Virago / Released: 8 May 2008

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      24.08.2012 11:40
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      A funny book about the tragedy of divorce

      ~"Everyone in Washington knew that Thelma was having an affair because she got her legs waxed and it wasn't even summer"~

      There's surely never a good time to tell your wife you've fallen in love with another woman, but Mark's timing is particularly poor. Rachel is seven months pregnant with his child and running around after their toddler when she comes across an inscription in a book from Mark's lover and realises what's been going on. Maybe she could have coped if it were just an affair - it wouldn't be the first time Mark had played away from home - but he seems almost relieved to be confronted so he can share with Rachel how much in love he is. To add insult to injury Rachel knows his new woman, Thelma Rice, and her husband.

      Thelma's a Washington hostess who is repeatedly described by Rachel as having 'a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb' and despite reading this description many times, I'm still a bit baffled about whether either was supposed to be a compliment. Is a nose as long as a thumb a good thing or a bad thing, and is this nose obsession somehow related to Rachel and Mark's Jewishness? I checked and my nose is shorter than my thumb and I still don't know if that's good or bad. It's one of the many baffling things about Nora Ephron's 'Heartburn'.

      ~"I have friends who begin with pasta, and friends who begin with rice, but whenever I fall in love, I begin with potatoes"~

      Ephron's heroine Rachel is 38 years old, a cookery writer and minor local television celebrity, and Mark is her second husband, a syndicated columnist whose witty little articles drawing on funny things that happen to him and his friends and family are featured in 109 newspapers up and down the USA. Mark goes through life stealing the experience of others and making money by writing about it in witty ways. He struck me as a man whose only claim to personality is borrowed from others. Rachel scatters recipes through her tale - not in the self-consciously contrived way that too many American novels do, but in the text as part of the story. You could actually learn some good recipes in amongst the heartbreak and the angst.

      Rachel's first husband Charlie ran off with a woman called Brenda whom she had envied all through her school days. Husband number one was seemingly no great loss but Rachel is not ready to give up on Mark so easily. She's sure that she'll wake up one morning and he'll be back knocking on the door, saying it's all been a terrible mistake and he wants her back. That's initially what she wants but as the book progresses she's forced to challenge whether it's ever worth taking back a cheating husband. Being dumped isn't all bad; Rachel's suddenly allowed to fantasise about strangers on the Underground (even ones without a college education, even ones who might turn out to be muggers) and old flames flicker out of the woodwork to stake their claims for her in the post-Mark era. On the other hand, Thelma's husband turns up to blame her for his wife's relationship with Mark and half her friends still keep coming to ask her WHO is Thelma cheating with. There's a clear sense that regardless of what's happened it must be the woman's fault - in this case the woman who's been cheated on.


      ~"Vera said "why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?' So I told her why : Because if I tell the story I control the version"~

      My copy of 'Heartburn' is the Virago Modern Classics paperback published in 2004, more than two decades after its first release. It comes with a foreword by Ephron herself in which she comes clean and confirms what everyone already knew that whilst the book isn't entirely autobiographical, it's certainly drawing heavily on the collapse of her second marriage. She says she was a less composed and more hysterical version of Rachel, and Mark represents her husband, Carl Bernstein, although she 'borrowed' the beard of a family friend in order to give the character more distinguishing features than he probably had. Some of the things in the book happened to her, others happened to people she knew (the robbery of the therapy group being a prime example) but a lot is just pure fiction. Her first husband didn't keep hamsters and she's never been a food writer.

      There's nothing particularly novel about a story of marital collapse so why does 'Heartburn' qualify for the 'modern classic' designation? Perhaps because it's just so well written, more likely because it's a very 'real' story, but probably it helps that it's incredibly and irreverently funny about a topic which shouldn't be. Other reviews I've seen suggest that not everyone gets the joke and many readers don't like the character of Rachel and find something uncomfortable about jilted spouses cracking jokes about their situation. Personally I thought it was laugh out loud funny in places and I can relate to humour as a weapon against distress. What makes the book significant - and probably got it onto the Virago Modern Classics list - is that it's an empowering book about not putting up with the crap of a loveless marriage just for the sake of the kids, written at a time when that's pretty much what women were expected to do. In 1982 divorce rates were at an all time high in the USA, but still nothing like as high as they are 30 years later. At that time nice girls just didn't talk about divorce or failed relationships - as Ephron said, they were supposed to "curl up and go to Connecticut". I had a boyfriend in my student days a few years post Heartburn whose mother was still begging him not to tell the neighbours that his step-father was not his father. Things got better of course once most of the royal family had divorces and the stigma reduced.

      In the midst of personal tragedy, Rachel taps into a rich seam of comedy gold. If you like Woody Allen, imagine he was a woman and you'd get just a taster of the deliciously zany Jewish humour of Nora Ephron. If you don't like Woody Allen, then don't let this put you off as Ephron's middle-aged neurotic Jewish heroine is entirely her own woman.

      It's hard to imagine that Carl Bernstein (he of Watergate fame) ever lived down Ephron's description of Mark as a man who would "have sex with a Venetian blind" and his lover, Margaret Jay (James Callaghan's daughter), can't have been too happy about her friends and neighbours being told she had herpes and about repeatedly being described as much too tall but I'm willing to bet Ephron felt better for getting things off her chest.


      ~"I always read the last page of a book first so that if I die before I finish, I'll know how it turned out"~

      Ephron died earlier this year and much was made of her screen-writing fame though she was the writer of many novels and essays and wrote and directed many films. She was most often praised in obituaries as the screenwriter behind two of the best loved classics of the chick-flick genre - 'When Harry Met Sally' and 'Sleepless in Seattle' - which might lead you to expect that she's all about 'happy ever after' which would be a wrong conclusion based on 'Heartburn'. She was also much respected as an essayist, and I have an as yet unread copy of 'I Feel Bad About My Neck' which I'm more likely to read now I've been introduced to her humour. I've not checked but I feel sure she must be one of those people whose wise and witty words grace the pages of American dictionaries of quotations. I feel oddly saddened to have not got to know Nora Ephron through the pages of her books until she'd already moved on to life's great sequel but I'm sure she and her work will long be remembered.

      ~Details~
      Heartburn, Nora Ephron
      Published by Virago Modern Classics
      ISBN 978-1-84408-0
      179pp

      All quotations except the title one are from Heartburn and all are from Nora Ephron

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