That summed up the whole mess: heartburn

by Nora Ephron

Man, Nora Ephron was funny. Sadly this was her only novel, but as it is the thinnest veneer of fiction over autobiography, I guess it’s not so far from her brilliant essays. This beautiful new edition from Virago Modern Classics was the centrepiece of a Waterstones window display and tempted me into the shop to buy a copy, then also led me to buy three other books because, you know, I was in a bookshop.

It’s the story of Rachel who, seven months pregnant with her second child, discovers that her husband is not only cheating on her, but has fallen in love with the other woman. She must now figure how to move on with her life while protecting her toddler son Sam. And she has to reassess her marriage to Mark, which turns out to have been on rocky ground from the very start.

“When Mark and I married we were rich and two years later we were broke. Not actually broke – we did have equity. We had a stereo system that had eaten thousands of dollars, and a country house in West Virginia that had eaten tens of thousands of dollars, and a city house in Washington that had eaten hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we had things – God, did we have things…now, of course, I understand it all a little better, because the other thing that ate our money was the affair with Thelma Rice. Thelma went to France in the middle of it, and you should see the phone bills.”

Rachel as a narrator is very chatty. Every page is packed with the minutiae of not only her life but those of the people around her. She’s a gossip. A (mostly) endearing one, but a gossip all the same. And now the best gossip in town is about her.

There’s plenty of catty dissection of Washington DC society, and how it pales in comparison with Rachel’s beloved New York City. I laughed so much reading this book, but there is also sorrow and anger in there. Rachel is on her second marriage and she is clearly puzzled as to how she can have got it wrong twice already. There’s surprisingly little judgement of Mark for having had an affair, his real transgression seems to be no longer being in love with her.

“Heartburn. That, it seemed to me as I lay in bed, was what I was suffering from. That summed up the whole mess: heartburn. Compound heartburn. Double-digit heartburn. Terminal heartburn. The tears poured from my eyes as I lit on the image, and the only thing that might have made it even more satisfyingly melodramatic and masochistic would have been to be lying in the bathtub; nothing like crying in the bathtub for real self-pity.”

There’s also lots of therapy and therapists, each more ridiculous than the last. I can’t decide if that makes it a perfect fit or a real surprise that Ephron is very insightful about human nature and behaviour. From how we can find betrayal secretly satisfying because it gives us a righteous edge, to the comfort in following a reliable recipe, it largely rings true.

The edition I bought includes the foreword that Nora Ephron added in 2004. In it she fully acknowledges how close the story is to her real life at the time of writing, and that it upset her ex-husband (Carl Bernstein, though she doesn’t name him) how much of their break-up she effectively revealed to the world. Even this introduction is hilarious:

“Everyone always asks, Was he mad at you for writing the book? and I have to say, Yes, yes, he was. He still is. It is one of the most fascinating things to me about the whole episode: he cheated on me, and then got to behave as if he was the one who had been wronged because I wrote about it! I mean, it’s not as if I wasn’t a writer. It’s not as if I hadn’t often written about myself. I’d even written about him. What did he think was going to happen? That I would take a vow of silence for the first time in my life?”

Published 1983 by William Heinemann.

Source: Waterstones Bristol.