It’s a cliche that necessity is the mother of invention. Before she really made a name for herself as a crafter of witty film repartee, Nora Ephron was an essay writer for the New York Post and Esquire. She also dated and married fellow journalist Carl Bernstein in 1976. Happiness was short-lived, though, as Bernstein cheated on Ephron in 1979 with Margaret Jay, a former BBC producer. Bernstein had a history of skirt-chasing, but when he married Ephron he had apparently reformed. Naturally, fidelity-stickler Ephron was not forgiving when Bernstein went back on his promise, and the divorce was finalized in 1985.
Ephron funneled her pain and frustration into writing a novel, Heartburn, which was published in 1983. Its main plot points were so dead on that anyone who knew the couple recognized the real events within the fiction.
The plot is simply this: Rachel is a successful cookbook author and TV personality living in Washington, D.C. She has a son, Sam, and another child on the way. Her husband, Mark, cheats on her seven months into the pregnancy with Thelma, the wife of an acquaintance of theirs. Rachel takes Sam and hops on the shuttle plane to her hometown of New York City, where she holes up in her dad’s apartment.
While she’s in New York, Rachel reconnects with her group of friends she’s known for eons. It doesn’t take long for Mark to come begging for her forgiveness and asking her to put her ring back on. Rachel can’t, though, because it was stolen when she and her friends got robbed one night. She does, however, forgive Mark after he starts crying because that kind of thing always turns her into mush, and she, Mark, and Sam take the shuttle back to D.C. Has Rachel really forgiven Mark, though? That is the big question.
How does the novel open? Well, nothing happens. How does the novel progress? It doesn’t. The first half is made up of expository reminisces about Rachel’s family and friends, as well as the events surrounding her finding out about Mark’s affair. It’s effective for filling out backstory, but murder on the narrative.
Even when the story seems to move forward, there’s no real narrative anywhere in the book; it reads as if Rachel is talking to her shrink and the rest of us are eavesdropping. It doesn’t make for a comfortable reading experience unless readers enjoy being held at arm’s length. I sure don’t. When I read I like to disappear into a book, and Heartburn didn’t let me.
The other major barrier is the moral confusion. Rachel is outraged that Mark would cheat on her, yet she cheated on her first husband. Marital fidelity wasn’t important to her until she married Mark, and then she’s suddenly loyal to a fault. Her anger probably stems from having her past transgression reflected back to her so blatantly; now that the shoe is on the other foot, Rachel feels discombobulated.
She shouldn’t be, though, considering her upbringing. Everyone seems to be cheating on someone in Heartburn. Rachel’s dad has a mistress and isn’t shy about it, and her mother, well, gets around. Rachel’s former ambivalence toward monogamy is a reflection of her lifelong normal.
The novel would be better if these characters had some redeeming qualities to them, but they just don’t have much beyond their forming community with Rachel. They’re difficult to connect with. For instance, when Rachel’s mom lies about being on her deathbed so she can put on a show for attention, it doesn’t inspire much sympathy when she actually is dying. It feels anticlimactic. I remember seeing complaints in some of the Amazon reviews about this; more than one person said they were bored and found the characters unlikeable.
The funny thing is that her protagonist knows her story plods, because she addresses the reader on more than one occasion. “You don’t want to hear a blow-by-blow account,” she says. Actually, we kinda would because that’s the point of this novel, but thanks for thinking of us, Rachel.
She even apologizes for not giving out more recipes in her soul-baring: “It’s hard to include recipes when you’re trying to move a plot forward.” Errrr…yes. Yes, it is. Don’t get me wrong, they’re wonderful-looking recipes, and they give insight into Rachel’s character, but they have a random stream-of-consciousness bent to them that can feel a wee bit useless.
This fourth wall-breaking doesn’t show up until about halfway through the book, and then it’s only a fleeting device. I sighed and made “What the heck?” faces. I couldn’t help it. Human beings can be weird, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s not unreasonable to wonder if Ephron had a method in her madness, because the emotional fallout from Bernstein’s dalliance was no doubt still raw. Maybe the expository structure was her way of creating a little bit of distance as she processed everything. Writing the novel must have been cathartic in more ways than one.
I also have to wonder what percentage of the novel was real. Ephron really did take her children and bolt when the affair came to light, but it was to her editor’s house, not her dad’s. The ensuing novel bugged Carl Bernstein enough that he threatened to sue Ephron, so she must have been pretty squarely on target.
In 1986 a film version of Heartburn was released, starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Bernstein wasn’t any happier about the film than he was about the book, but there was really nothing he could do about it.
As the years went on, the two of them seemed to call a sort of truce; at least in pictures they look somewhat civil. I have a feeling history will look more kindly on Ephron, though.
Heartburn stirs up mixed feelings for me. I want to like it better, but I don’t think it wants to be liked. It’s almost as if it’s ashamed of itself amidst its moral outrage at Rachel’s hardships, and this realization makes it defensive. Still, I have a slight idea what Ephron was doing when she wrote it and I can’t blame her. Even though she was probably kinder to Bernstein than he deserved, the morals of the story are twofold. The first is that adultery is wrong. The second is that hell hath no fury like an Ephron scorned.
My review of a certain infamously bad movie is on its way. No spoilers except one: I hear the flapping of badly rendered CGI wings off in the distance. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you Saturday…
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