Saturday, March 10, 2018

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

“Sometimes I believe that love dies but hope springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that hope dies but love springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals love, and sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals good sex. Sometimes I believe that love is as natural as the tides, and sometimes I believe that love is an act of will. Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it. Sometimes I believe that love is essential, and sometimes I believe that only reason love is essential is that otherwise you spend all your time looking for it.”

I suspect that everyone reading this blog likes at least one of the big three Nora Ephron movies: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You've Got Mail. I like all three. They don't comprise her entire ouvre, but they do demonstrate her best qualities in the best way. In a way, watching only Ephron movies can give you a mistaken impression about the Romantic Comedy genre as a whole--at her best, Ephron captures real people saying impossibly witty things in ways that seem believable. There's real intelligence and humanity in her work that 2nd tier RCs like Sweet Home Alabama just don't possess.

I had no idea Ephron also wrote a novel, and if I had, I'm not sure I would have been interested in reading it. As much as I like the aforementioned movies, it's very easy to attribute their success to their charismatic leads and give the script the short shrift. But the weird cover drew me in when I passed by at the library and I'm glad it did. Heartburn is one of the most fun books I've read in years, and, like she does with her movies, Ephron manages to squeeze pathos out of a screwball comedy about her divorce.

I say "her divorce": it seems well known that Heartburn is Ephron's fictionalized version of her own divorce from Carl Bernstein, of Woodward and Bernstein, but she's mostly uninterested in the politics aside from some DC-centric one-liners. Indeed, a reucrring theme is her desire to be back in New York, where Ephron spent most of her life. And she does indeed have a New York voice, and a heavily-Jewish one at that. In fact, more than anything else, I was often reminded of a more madcap, funnier (yep) Philip Roth. When I read the blurb for Portnoy's Complaint, this is the sort of thing I was expecting.

The story opens with an 8-months pregnant Rachel Samstat learning that her husband, Mark, has been having an affair with a mutual friend since she got pregnant. Upon confronting him, expecting an apology, she's taken aback when he tells her he's in love, he's going to continue seeing her, and that she needs to accept it. And there she is, about to be single at 30-something, 8 months pregnant with a 3 year old.

Now, this all sounds like rather dour stuff, and at times, Ephrom takes a break from all the wisecracking to let us get a peek at the sadness that underlies even the silliest bits in this story. And there is a lot of (very witty) silliness mixed in:

That's the catch about betrayal, of course: that it feels good, that there's something immensely pleasurable about moving from a complicated relationship which involves minor atrocities on both sides to a nice, neat, simple one where one person has done something so horrible and unforgivable that the other person is immediately absolved of all the low-grade sins of sloth, envy, gluttony, avarice and I forget the other three.

There is a bit of a twist at the midpoint, wherein Mark seems interested in reconciliation, but it doesn't seem like much of a spoiler to say that they don't end the book together--their last interaction is a pie thrown at a dinner party. More surprisingly, perhaps, given Ephron's filmography, is that Rachel ends the book definitively alone. Her aloneness is hopeful--she's in good spirits, cracking wise in the last pages--but it does underscore how even a comedic book about separation is really no picnic underneath, and that in the end, there are always pieces remaining to pick up.

And then the dreams break into a million tiny pieces. The dream dies. Which leaves you with a choice: you can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream.

It occurs to me now that most of the passages I marked were serious, sad observations, but I laughed out loud repeatedly while reading. I'll leave you with this, gentle reader:

There was a time when I thought galloping neuroses were wildly romantic, when I longed to be the sort of girl who knew the names of wildflowers and fed baby birds with eyedroppers and rescued bugs from swimming pools and wanted from time to time to end it all. Now, in my golden years, I have become very impatient with [this] in others. Show me a woman who cries when the trees lose their leaves in autumn and I'll show you a real asshole.


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