Review: What Nora Knew by Linda Yellin
Born Melinda Cheryl Jacobson (a name she changed because “it sounds uptight and prissy”) in Chicago, Linda Yellin started off as a copywriter in the advertising industry and gradually moved into radio and print journalism. She is the author of one previous novel, Such a Lovely Couple (1991), as well as a memoir, The Last Blind Date (2011), both of which reflect on her adventures in love.
In What Nora Knew, New Yorker Molly Hallberg is a 39-year-old divorced journalist. Her job for online gossip magazine EyeSpy is enjoyable enough, but she sometimes wishes she could be taken a bit more seriously. Boss Deirdre delights in sending her on silly pranks: joining the Rockettes for a day, trying skydiving or speed-dating, or sneaking a lipstick-shaped vibrator through a security scanner at the courthouse. Really, Molly would rather have her own column with a by-line and headshot, “My Eye,” a place where she can expound her own gently cynical views on modern life. And in the meantime she’s got a portfolio of nearly 100 essays on the literary classics that she’s been too shy to show to anyone yet.
Her ex-husband, Evan Naboshek, was a “happily divorced divorce lawyer” – which should perhaps have been a sign to her, but at least meant that he was able to dissolve their three-year bond quickly and efficiently. She had been getting out of a cab in the rain with heavy bags of groceries when everything crashed to the ground; suddenly, there was Evan to rescue her – her sleek, smooth-talking knight in a three-piece suit. On that first day of their relationship he offered to take her out for coffee, though he first made her wait for him to conclude a ten-minute antagonistic phone call with a disgruntled client. “Warnings? Warnings? There were a million warnings, all of which I chose to ignore…I didn’t question his nonstop honeyed words.”
Well, all that’s in the past now. Molly even managed to turn her experience into journalist’s gold by writing an eviscerating tell-all piece about Evan that eventually got her the job at EyeSpy: “You did to him what Nora Ephron did to Carl Bernstein [in her thinly veiled roman à clef, Heartburn],” Deirdre had exulted. Now Molly is dating Dr. Russell Edley, a chiropractor who loves Nicolas Cage movies and his pair of pet turtles. He may not be the most exciting beau, but they’re comfortable together. He’s the Greg Kinnear or Bill Pullman to her Meg Ryan. He might not light her fire, but he keeps her warm at night.
And it seems like that will be good enough – until Molly meets Cameron Duncan, an insufferable crime novelist. His detective hero, Mike Bing, always gets the girl (but then again, the girl always dies at the end of the book), and so does Cameron. He also seems to be getting all of Molly’s assignments. Deirdre had challenged her to write an article about modern city romance, in the witty, breezy style of Nora Ephron. Molly half-heartedly pestered a few people in Tiffany’s and on the subway with some jaded questions, but the article bombed (“You just don’t have a grasp for romance. You’re too detached.”). That is, until Deirdre asked Cameron to rewrite it, and later offered him a recurring EyeSpy column.
Molly keeps running into this Cameron character at parties and literary events, and each time their verbal sparring matches leave her angry but also strangely enlivened: “He brought out my tart-tongued dark side. His mere presence innerved me. He was too smooth, too charming. Totally irritating.” There’s another Nora coming through here: Nick and Nora Charles, those masters of banter from the Thin Man series of 1930s-40s films. Russell may scoff that “Snappy dialogue’s for characters in movies,” but Molly and Cameron do seem to have a special gift for both entrancing and enraging each other in conversation, even up on stage, when Molly is the last-minute additional guest at a 92Y panel discussion.
Our main character will have to decide what is most important to her in life and what she is willing to give up to get it; after all, “Nora taught me something else: I have to write my own happy ending.” It would be a shame to ruin that ending for you, even if it might be considered a rather predictable one. Suffice it to say that Yellin has learned well from Nora Ephron. She patterns her romantic plot largely on the examples of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail; this novel has all the humor and sweetness of an Ephron rom-com, yet avoids the pitfalls of stereotypical chick lit.
At times Yellin’s debt to Ephron might seem a bit too obvious – reusing some of the movies’ settings and incidents, or having Molly and Russell make up silly voices for his turtles (Ephron’s characters did the same for pet hamsters in Heartburn) – but for the most part she keeps her tribute subtle and sly.
Whether you know Meg Ryan’s 1990s oeuvre backwards and forwards or it’s all new to you, you’ll be inspired to put a few Ephron classics in your Netflix queue after reading this delightful novel. Even if, like Molly, you think you’re a cynic when it comes to romance, it’s the perfect book to devour in the run-up to Valentine’s Day.