Heartburn by Nora Ephron is the funniest book you’ll ever read about heartbreak and betrayal. It’s full of wry observations about the compromises we make to marry – and then stay married to – people who are very different from us. The late Ephron (she died last year after complications from leukemia) readily admitted that her 1983 novel is more than a little autobiographical: it’s based on the breakdown of her second marriage to investigative journalist Carl Bernstein (him of All the President’s Men), who had an affair with a ludicrously tall woman – one element she transferred directly into Heartburn: “it’s my experience as a novelist that some things lose everything if they are disguised, even thinly, and that therefore it’s best to just leave them alone,” she wrote in her 2004 introduction.
Ephron’s fictional counterpart is Rachel Samstad, a New Yorker who writes cookbooks or, rather, memoirs with recipes – before that genre really took off. Pregnant with her second child, she has just learned that her second husband is having an affair. What follows is her uproarious memories of life, love and failed marriages. Indeed, as Ephron reflected, “One of the things I’m proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is.”
As one might expect from the screenwriter of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle and the director of Julie and Julia (though Heartburn preceded all of these), there is a ‘cinematic’ – that is, vivid but not-quite-believable – quality to some of the moments: the armed robbery of Rachel’s therapy group, her accidentally flinging an onion into the audience during a cooking demonstration, her triumphant throw of a key lime pie into her husband’s face in the final scene. And yet Ephron was again drawing on experience: a friend’s therapy group was robbed at gunpoint, and she’d always filed the experience away in a mental drawer marked “Use This Someday” – “My mother taught me many things when I was growing up, but the main thing I learned from her is that everything is copy.”
This is one of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson’s favorite books ever: for its mixture of recipes and rue, food and folly. It’s a quick read, but a substantial feast for the emotions.