Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Our Book Group have reached the second half of the alphabet! May’s book for discussion was the only novel by the creator of peerless romcoms, When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, the latter she directed too. She also wrote the screenplay, directed and produced Julie & Julia, the book of which by Julie Powell we’ve previously read and discussed (see here – Ephron’s film was better than the book!).
Ephron’s novella, published in 1983, is essentially a fictional account of the end of her relationship with her second husband, the famous journalist Carl Bernstein. Ephron explains all this in an introduction, so the reader is under no illusion! Given Ephron’s movie pedigree, the ‘all names have been changed’ formula and the myriad of plaudits of the ‘funniest book ever’ kind, this novella had an awful lot to live up to. How did it fare?
Rachel is seven months pregnant when she discovers her husband is in love with another woman. She is in a quandary, should she let him go or win him back? In between the roller-coaster emotions of this, Rachel as a cookery writer takes some consolation in food, and shares some recipes with the reader.
“Every so often I would look at my women friends who were happily married and didn’t cook, and I would always find myself wondering how they did it. Would anyone love me if I couldn’t cook? I always thought cooking was part of the package: Step right up, it’s Rachel Samstat, she’s bright, she’s funny and she can cook!”
There are some great set piece scenes, including one with a pie that I won’t explain further, although not all of them work on the page so well. However, there are a great many witty one-liners, like this one.
“I think I was so entranced with being a couple that I didn’t even notice that the person I thought I was a couple with thought he was a couple with someone else.”
But, for most of the group it fell a bit flat, reading like a novelisation of a screenplay. Those who listened to the audiobook version with Meryl Streep generally had a better and more immediate experience. Given that it was written in the early 1980s, it has dated a little and you must admit that Rachel, as Ephron’s alter-ego, the woman scorned is a stereotype. All in all it felt like Ephron needed to get the detritus of that failed relationship off her chest, and writing Heartburn was her way of doing it.
For me the novella was bittersweet, with moments of desperation even. It was less funny than I expected, but still witty enough. I even liked the inclusion of the recipes (which have a little index at the end), not all of us did. I do think, as an older member of our group having survived the 1980s (my 20s) I felt more attuned to this novella.
Does it deserve its modern classic status? Yes – it does. It’s of its time, but as Claire in our group said, it opened the door for women’s commercial fiction of this confessional kind e.g. Sophie Kinsella’s ‘shopaholic’ novels, and even Bridget Jones etc.
Next month we’re at O – which is for O’Brien, Edna. Reading The Little Red Chairs.
Source: Own copy from the TBR. BUY from Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P), Virago paperback, 192 pages.