I didn’t reread Nora Ephron’s only novel, Heartburn, last summer when my fiancé broke off our engagement, leaving me to move out of his Brooklyn apartment and onto a friend’s couch on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I did, however, watch the movie it’s based on, and for which Ephron wrote the screenplay, several times. It’s a near-perfect film, with Meryl Streep as Rachel Samstat, who is blindsided while several months pregnant when she discovers that her husband, Mark Feldman (played by Jack Nicholson), is in love with another woman. Ephron herself joked about the film years later at Meryl Streep’s AFI Lifetime Achievement tribute. “I highly recommend Meryl Streep play you,” she quipped. “If your husband is cheating on you with a carhop, get Meryl to play you. You will feel much better. If you get rear-ended in a parking lot, have Meryl Streep play you. If the dingo eats your baby, call Meryl.”
That’s the kind of wit that fills up the pages of Heartburn, a slim novel that packs a heavy punch — even two decades after its publication — in less than 200 pages. Of course, reading it 20 years later, and two years after Ephron’s death, is probably the best way to digest the book. After all, its popularity at the time of its first printing was due to the fact that it’s a thinly veiled account of her own marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, best known as the co-author (along with Bob Woodward) of All the President’s Men. In 1979, after they’d been married for three years, Ephron left Bernstein when she discovered he was having an affair with Margaret Jay, the daughter of former British Prime Minister James Callaghan and the wife of former British ambassador Peter Jay. It was a juicy gossip item at the time, as Ephron and Bernstein were a major power couple in Washington (not to mention that the Jays were reported in a local gossip column to have had a “relaxed” marriage).
There are plenty of similarities between Ephron and Bernstein and the fictional couple in Heartburn. Rachel is a cookbook writer, but one whose books are mostly written in prose with a chatty, conversational style. Mark is a political columnist whose writing is syndicated across the country. Rachel, who narrates the story, confesses her lack of interest in politics, making her a bit of an outcast in Washington. She’s a New York Jew who feels out of place in the swampland of DC, and when she realizes that her husband is having an affair — when she is 38 and seven months pregnant (as Ephron herself was in 1979) — she feels even more vulnerable. So she packs her things and heads back to New York, only to find Mark waiting for her in her father’s Manhattan apartment. She returns home with him, has her baby several weeks premature, and realizes, after much internal anguish, that Mark is no longer in love with her.
There are plenty of things in the novel that could very well be fiction, as they are stories that did not end up in gossip columns or casually mentioned in Ephron’s other essays (such as the anecdote she relayed about her first husband sleeping with her former best friend — and giving her the former best friend’s husband’s crabs). I don’t think Nora Ephron’s group therapy session was ever robbed at gunpoint. There’s nothing written about Ephron spreading a false rumor that Margaret Jay had herpes, as Rachel does about Mark’s mistress. Who knows if she actually threw a Key Lime pie at Carl Bernstein’s face! But there was enough in there to incite the earliest critics — many of whom were her personal acquaintances — to dismiss the novel solely based on its autobiographical nature. In a somewhat dismissive profile in a March 1983 issue of New York magazine, it’s revealed that Ephron refused to do interviews about the book, but she did get plenty of press out of it (including an excerpt in Vanity Fair). Instead, writer Jesse Kornbluth relied on anonymous sources (“friends” of Ephron’s and Bernstein’s) to pad the profile. One friend told him, “I can understand Nora wouldn’t want something written about her…. What I find amazing is that she could write 179 pages about herself and then not want to be written about.”
Two men who did deliver comments about the book were her two ex-husbands. The first, Dan Greenburg, said, “Nora is a much classier person and a much better writer than is evident in this book.” (The character on which he is based is described as a complete neurotic who keeps hamsters and, of course, sleeps with Rachel’s former best friend, bringing pubic lice back home with him.) Carl Bernstein, hilariously, began his comment with, “Obviously, I wish Nora hadn’t written it.” (What a shame for Carl Bernstein, I guess, to have a not-so-fictional character based on him after he cheated on his famous wife while she was pregnant with his second child.)
The profile has a tinge of sexism to it, of course, because it focuses more on how the real-life subjects of Ephron’s novel — notably, the men who behave quite poorly — would react to the book. How awful it would be for their reputation! Nora Ephron, I suppose, was beyond the point of being sympathetic; she got her revenge by writing a novel based on an emotionally damaging period of her life. (But let us not forget the men. The poor men!)
The quote from her first husband is particularly stunning, because I have never been astounded by Ephron’s wit and writing style as much as her intelligence. She was a genius, not because she wrote complicated, philosophical, multi-volume novels about, uh, herself (hello, Karl Ove Knausgaard); rather, she wrote for the audience she knew would enjoy her books while refusing to dumb anything down for them. Yes, Rachel intersperses more recipes in her story than she does Reagan-era political references, but not because she doesn’t understand the politics — she simply cares more about food. Yet alongside those recipes for crispy potatoes and pot roast — all of them serving as some version of comfort food for a character who finds herself, throughout the entirety of the novel, in a state of complete discomfort — is ample evidence of Ephron’s excellent vocabulary. This isn’t exactly a beach read, unless you don’t mind carrying a Webster’s dictionary in your beach bag.
Ephron’s style, throughout her journalism, her essays, her plays, and her screenplays, was beautifully smart and, most importantly, unpretentious. She wrote like she was talking to you, and that’s what’s so endearing about reading her writing: it still feels, two years after her death, like your friend is telling you a really great story. That story makes you feel better, because you can relate to the pain and the anguish she’s sharing with you.
Suddenly — a year after that period I spent watching Heartburn on repeat while lying on my friend’s couch, unable to sleep from the anxiety of a broken heart — I feel a lot better about still feeling pretty bitter that I had my heart broken in the first place. After all, Nora Ephron published Heartburn three years after her breakup. That’s not because she couldn’t get over it, or was embarrassed about airing out her personal, emotional indignities years later; it’s because writing the book was part of the process of getting over that grief, of owning her story and integrating that pain into her identity, which any good therapist would say is the only way to get over a trauma.
Rachel puts it very plainly in the last pages of the novel, in a meeting with her therapist, Vera, weeks after she leaves Mark and Washington for good.
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. Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much. Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.
At the risk of sounding like a lame Twitter bio, I’m going to quote Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That quote is concise enough to fit into 140 characters, for sure, but Nora Ephron had the bravery to apply its sentiment to real life. She persisted in being open and brutally honest about why she did what she did: for herself. Anyone can read Heartburn and see a bit of themselves in Rachel Samstat — and that especially goes for anyone who has felt betrayed or left broken because of someone else’s careless actions. But Ephron didn’t write the book for us; she did it for herself. That we got to share it, well, that just makes us a little bit luckier.