Heartburn

In which I review Heartburn, Nora Ephron’s autobiographical 1983 novel about a New York food writer who discovers midway through her second pregnancy that her husband is having an affair.

What it’s about: New York, the early 1980s. Rachel Samsat, a middle-class Jewish New Yorker and successful food writer, discovers that her husband Mark, a well-known columnist for the Washington Post, is having an affair with a mutual acquaintance Thelma Rice, “a fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm“. Rachel’s narration moves backwards and forwards in time, chronicling her disastrous first marriage to a man who kept hamsters, her loving but difficult relationship with her alcoholic screenwriter father and casting agent mother, the early days of her relationship with Mark, and her relocation to Washington to live with him, and the birth of their eldest son Sam. While seven months pregnant with their second child, Rachel discovers the affair and returns to New York. She resumes her group therapy sessions, but the group is robbed at gunpoint by a thief who follows Rachel from the subway. Eventually, Mark pursues her and promises not to see Thelma, and Rachel returns to Washington, wrestling with her doubts and paranoia about the relationship. Rachel recovers her stolen ring and goes to a jeweller to have it reset, and learns that Mark has bought Thelma an expensive necklace. Realising that her marriage is over, she throws a key lime pie in Mark’s face at a dinner party and leaves him for good. Rachel’s narrative is interwoven with recipes for bread pudding, peach pie and four-minute eggs, her musings on the joy of potatoes, and her secret vinaigrette recipe that she finally shares with Mark before leaving him.

Why it’s a classic: Nora Ephron was already a well-known journalist, columnist and screenwriter when she wrote Heartburn, which was published in 1983 to great popular acclaim and quite a bit of controversy. Ephron freely admitted that Heartburn was autobiographical, based on her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein and her discovery of his affair with Margaret Jay, the daughter of British Prime Minister James Callaghan and at the time married to the UK Ambassador to the United States.

In the early 1980s, Bernstein was one of America’s most revered political journalists, as one half of the Washington Post reporting team who broke the Watergate scandal and prompted the resignation of President Nixon. Bernstein had already been portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the film All the President’s Men as a selfish defender of the truth, obsessive in his determination to reveal government corruption. Ephron’s caustic portrayal of him as a narcissist and pathological liar who vampirises his friends’ lives to provide copy for his columns was the literary equivalent of a poo smear on a white silk shirt. A furious Bernstein threatened to sue Heartburn‘s publishers for libel and attempted to get a court order preventing Ephron from writing about him or their children again. In a 2004 introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition, Ephron reported that Bernstein was still mad at her for the book, adding ruefully: “he cheated on me, and then got to behave as if he was the one who had been wronged because I wrote about it!

Leaving aside the wounded 1980s celebrity egos, there was something deeper about the subversiveness of Heartburn that may explain its enduring appeal. Ephron was writing about marriage and infidelity from a wronged woman’s point of view, laying bare the failure of her own relationships with a confessional honesty that was highly unusual for the times. These days we can barely turn our heads without some celebrity crying in front of Oprah about a family dispute, but in the early 1980s, women like Rachel were largely expected to put up with philandering husbands, keep their mouths discreetly closed and wait for things to calm down. Ephron’s transgression wasn’t just that she wrote about her marriage, but that she allowed her alter ego to be angry, humiliated, distrustful, paranoid, and highly articulate. Her writing paved the way for latter generations of women writing to write about marriages and motherhood in similarly disenchanted terms, with everyone from Candace Bushnell (author of Sex and the City) to Girls creator Lena Dunham citing her as an influence.

Heartburn was made into a film in 1986, scripted by Ephron and directed by Mike Nichols, with Meryl Streep as Rachel and Jack Nicholson as Mark. The film earned respectful reviews and decent box office, and has become something of a cult classic. “I highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you,” Ephron quipped in a tribute speech years later; “If your husband is cheating on you… get Meryl to play you. You will feel much better.” The film established Ephron as a screenwriter of smart, funny, literate comedies about smart, funny, literate New Yorkers, territory she later developed in screenplays for a string of highly successful rom-coms: When Harry Met Sally…., Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. In 2009, she wrote and directed Julie and Julia, which in some ways is the antithesis to Heartburn – two female food writers in different eras (Julia Child and Julie Powell) finding success through their love of food and the support of their devoted, saintly and non-philandering husbands.

Ephron’s success in film and her collections of comic essays (one memorably titled I Feel Bad About My Neck) have somewhat overshadowed her fiction, but it seemed fitting when Virago re-published Heartburn in 2004 as part of their Modern Classics 40th Anniversary series. Ephron’s hilarious introduction points out that while she doesn’t take issue with Heartburn being described as “a thinly disguised novel“, she notes that these words “are applied mostly to books written by women. Let’s face it, Philip Roth and John Updike picked away at the carcasses of their early marriages in book after book, but to the best of my knowledge they were never hit with the thinly disguised thing.” And there in a nutshell is why Heartburn is and should be referred to as a classic – for wading fearlessly into territory that was formerly the preserve of the Great White Males of literature, and doing it with wit and aplomb.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge bouquet, though it should probably be a key lime pie covered with whipped cream which is eaten, slowly and lovingly, rather than hurled at someone’s head. I was a fan of the film of Heartburn, which I first saw in the late 1980s, at the start of my life-long love affair with the films of Meryl Streep. It struck me with its fine balance of two-parts comedy to three-parts sadness, though it also seemed rarefied and vaguely anthropological, chronicling a chic alternative universe in the vein of Woody Allen films: women in shoulder-pads who make a living writing about rice pudding, invite their therapists to their weddings and somehow also manage to afford three-storied townhouses in central Manhattan. I was aware of but had never had much interest in reading Ephron’s novel, assuming that it would have little to add since it all came from the same autobiographical source.

Reader, how wrong I was. Heartburn is a truly extraordinary book – hilariously funny and highly entertaining with a souffle-like lightness, grounded by a deeply felt and often very painful exploration of betrayal, disappointment and dashed dreams of happiness. There’s something about Ephron’s ability to weave together comedy and tragedy that makes Heartburn fascinating to study, and may also explain why it hasn’t been given its full due as a serious piece of modern literature. Like a great chef, she pulls off some tricky high-wire stunts and make it all look effortless – moving backwards and forwards in time, creating a narrative voice of easy intimacy and conspiratorial fun, blending recipes and reminiscences while making sure the plot doesn’t drag or collapse, holding a joke for just long enough to land the laugh but not overstay its welcome. None of this is easy to do, and as her many (much less talented) imitators demonstrate, her talent is as much about the rhythm of her writing than the plot, and in knowing what’s best left out as well as what’s included.

I was also surprised, pleasantly, by how angry a book Heartburn was, and how much that anger palpitates through the story, even with all Ephron’s zingy one-liners and deadpan observations. Although Rachel appears to be just another hot mess, a privileged white lady so lost in her own world that she fails to see what’s going on about her, she’s capable of devastating insights that explode on the page like well-concealed landmines. “When something like this happens,” Rachel says of the affair, “you suddenly have no sense of reality at all. You have lost a piece of your past. The infidelity itself is small potatoes compared to the low-level brain damage that results when a whole chunk of your life turns out to have been completely different from what you thought it was.” She also lands a few hard-won observations about the male of the species: “[B]eware of men who cry. It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.”

As Heartburn progresses, Ephron’s humour becomes darker and more multi-faceted: it’s variously a form of protection, a weapon and a means of survival, as her alter-ego heroine navigates a horribly humiliating betrayal. Ephron can also be wonderfully cruel about her characters, saving her most withering put-downs for Thelma’s hapless husband Jonathan: “Jonathan never takes anything personally; he always sees himself as a statistical reflection of a larger trend in society“. Later, she says “No wonder Thelma had fallen in love with Mark; if I’d spent nineteen years with Jonathan Rice, I would have run off with a delivery boy from the Fleet Messenger Service.” Ephron also expresses a Manhattanite’s disdain for life in Washington, describing her commute from New York as “a perfect reflection of the Puritan tradition in its attempt to make a virtue out of suffering, abstinence and plainness.”

Heartburn didn’t get quite the feminist kudos it should have at the time – largely, I think, because Rachel’s crisis exists within a comfortably bourgeois environment. Ephron’s polemic isn’t in the manner of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique or Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, raging against the patriarchy’s abuse of women and demanding the end of marriage as a repressive institution. If anything, marriage is a club that Rachel enjoys belonging to and feels desperate about having to leave. On meeting the hunky Detective Nolan, she wonders “If I could be happily married to a policeman“, then in the same beat wonders “why I was so hopelessly bourgeois that I couldn’t even have a fantasy about a man without moving on to marriage.”

Rachel’s obsession with marriage has arguably dated the book, since marriage is no longer the default setting for most heterosexual relationships. But infidelity and betrayal is still very much with us, as are gendered expectations for how women should act under crisis. Late on in the book, Rachel dreads meeting Thelma at a social gathering: “I wanted more than anything to be a good girl under those circumstances. To button my lip. To let one go by. I wanted more than anything to be the kind of cool and confident person who could treat [Thelma] as if she were no more trouble to me than an old piece of chewing gum I had accidentally stepped in. But clearly I wasn’t cut out to be that kind of person.” Despite all her ditziness, Rachel does manage to shake off those expectations and properly leave her husband. The pie-in-the-face scene seems written for the big screen – it’s a great scene in the movie – but it’s also a neat metaphor for how the book’s conventional feminine values have been altered. After all Rachel’s talk of food as a way of showing love and a way of creating a home, she uses food, literally, as a weapon to dish up some of the humiliation that’s landed on her plate.

On a similar front, Ephron is refreshingly blunt about the physical and emotional car crash that is pregnancy: “the discomfort of not being able to sleep on your stomach and of peeing ever so slightly every time you cough and of leaking droplets from your breasts onto your good silk blouses an of suddenly finding yourself expert in mysteries you hadn’t expected to comprehend until middle age… swollen feet, varicose veins, neuritis, neuralgia, acid indigestion and heartburn.” (Fortunately, Ephron doesn’t work the “heartburn” metaphor too vigorously). All of this humour is mind-numbingly commonplace now, but in 1983, it was unusual to want to disrupt the taboo of ecstatic motherhood. She’s also very funny on the strange metamorphosis of the pregnant body and its attendant damage to a woman’s self-esteem: “I will be seven months pregnant forever, I thought, as the tears started to drip slowly into my ears…. The only men I’d have a shot at would have to be used to thoroughly misshapen women, and that pretty much ruled out everyone but doctors.”

The book’s bravest and most shocking line comes late in the book as Rachel’s baby is born prematurely and delivered by emergency Caesarean: “So. Nathaniel was early. I could hardly blame him. Something was dying inside me, and he had to get out.” Lines like that made me want to stand up and applaud Ephron, for doing what all good novelists should – rejecting cliché, and rutting around in the swamp of human failure to reveal an unvarnished but still glittering gem of wisdom.

Ultimately, Heartburn is a novel about the importance of speaking one’s unruly truth – a very modish theme in the current #metoo age. Initially Rachel plans to make notes about the affair, but finds that she can’t: “To write it down was to give it permanence, to admit that something real had happened“, she explains, preferring to console herself with buttery mashed potatoes. By the end of the book, she’s fully in control of her narrative. When asked by her therapist Vera “Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?“, Rachel/Ephron replies with the calling card of all novelists who dare to draw from the fetid well of personal experience:

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.

I adored every minute I spent with this book, and it’s given me a renewed appreciation for Ephron’s talent – which despite all her celebrity, went slightly under-appreciated in her lifetime. Heartburn proves that you don’t need to bring down the President to be a hero – sometimes it’s as simple, or as difficult, as surviving your life and living to tell the tale.

Quotable Quote: “I believed in change. I believed in metamorphosis. I believed in redemption. I believed in Mark. My marriage to him was as wilful an act as I have ever committed: I married him against all the evidence. I married him believing that marriage doesn’t work, that love dies, that passion fades, and in so doing I became the kind of romantic only a cynic is truly capable of being. I see all that now. At the time, though, I saw nothing of the sort. I honestly believed that Mark had learned his lesson. Unfortunately, the lesson he learned wasn’t the one I had in mind: what he learned is that he could do anything, and in the end there was a chance I’d take him back.”

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