Fiction – paperback; Virago; 192 pages; 2018.
First published in 1983, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn is a black comedy about the break up of a marriage between a high-flying journalist and a celebrity food writer.
Recently republished as part of Virago’s Modern Classic 40th anniversary series, it was Ephron’s only novel (albeit a thinly disguised memoir about her own marriage break up with investigative journalist Carl Bernstein). She’s probably better known as the screenwriter of the Hollywood films When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), among others.
I came to Heartburn via my book group when it was chosen as our November read. It’s a brilliant comic read that transforms a personal tragedy into a laugh-out-loud farce. Honestly, don’t read it on your commute unless you like guffawing in public, it really is that funny.
But it’s tinged with sadness and a smidgen of desperation, too, and there are brief moments of poignancy that give the tale a very human touch.
Affair of the heart
The story is told in the first person through the eyes of Rachel, a cookery writer, looking back on the time in her life when, seven months pregnant with her second child, she discovered that her husband was having an affair.
She knows Thelma, the other woman, whom she takes great delight in describing as “a fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs, never mind her feet, which are kind of splayed”.
When her husband comes home and confesses that he’s in love with Thelma but denies they are having an affair, he expects Rachel to stick by him in Washington, where they live. But Rachel has other ideas. She flees to Manhattan to spend some time with her father, a cantankerous man with his own sordid track record of adultery, and from there she licks her wounds and works on her plan to win her husband back.
Intimate, self-deprecating confession
The book is written as a deliciously intimate confession, one that swings between revenge and heartbreak, shame and all-consuming anger, and gives us a glimpse into Rachel’s innermost thoughts, not all of them pretty.
“If I tell the story,” she says, “I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.”
It’s full of terrific one-liners and great put downs and is littered with non-PC opinions and much self-deprecating humour.
And because the way to a man’s heart, they say, is through food, it also features many recipes — for things such as vinaigrette, creme brûlée, key lime pie and sorrel soup — all of which play an important part in Rachel’s marriage and career. (There’s even a helpful index at the back of the book should you wish to make the recipes yourself.)
It’s peopled with a cast of rather obnoxious, self-obsessed characters — everyone’s wealthy and successful and sleeping with people to whom they’re not married — the kinds of people who don’t take responsibilities for their actions and seek to blame others.
If you think this sounds like good material for a film, you’d be right: it was adapted in 1986 (Ephron wrote the screenplay) and stars Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. I haven’t seen it, but if it’s half as good as the book it will be very good indeed.