The biting, witty melancholy of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn

Meryl Streep lies with her head in Nicholson’s lap as he bends down to say something in her ear. She stares into space, absentmindedly playing with his hair.
Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in the film adaptation of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. | IMDB

Heartburn, Ephron’s only novel, just turned 40. It’s an acid bomb of a romance.

Nora Ephron had two careers.

In her second career, the one that made her famous, she was the screenwriter and director behind a series of dreamy, witty, deeply romantic comedies. She made When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail. “I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address,” Tom Hanks tells Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, a single line that launched a thousand Etsy storefronts full of pencil bouquets.

In her first career, however, Ephron was a writer of acidically cynical and vengeful journalism. “Ephron, as everyone who’s read her knows, is one of our great prosecutorial talents,” proclaimed New York magazine in a 1983 profile. Among her targets were feminist icon Betty Friedan; Wellesley College, Ephron’s alma mater; Dorothy Schiff, Ephron’s former boss and the owner of the New York Post; and Women’s Wear Daily, which sued.

Ephron back then was not the kind of writer whose quips sold Valentine’s Day cards. She was the kind of writer whose quips earned lifelong enemies. “I want to see her crawl over broken glass,” one of Ephron’s former friends says in that New York magazine profile.

The hinge between the two Ephrons is Heartburn, her only novel. Now celebrating its 40th anniversary with a new edition from Vintage Contemporaries, Heartburn is based on Ephron’s divorce from her second husband, Carl Bernstein. It was a massive bestseller and eventually became a movie starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Ephron wrote the screenplay, and in so doing developed her nascent screenwriting career safely out of one-hit wonder territory (she’d just scored an Oscar nod for her first feature screenplay, 1983’s Silkwood) into a bona fide brand — a brand with a newly romantic sensibility.

Heartburn the book is a comedic and gently sad account of the dissolution of a marriage, and in turn the dissolution of a life. It’s bittersweet enough that only a romantic could have written it, and vicious enough that the romantic must have been both extremely mean and extremely funny. Also, the food is great.

There’s a lot of food, because Rachel Samstat, Ephron’s stand-in and Heartburn’s protagonist, is a cookbook writer who dives for a recipe anytime she has to deal with too much emotion. That means food plays a prominent role in the story of how Rachel finds out when she’s seven months pregnant that her husband is having an affair. (It doesn’t help that her husband is “a fairly short person,” while his mistress is “a fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb.” See? Vindictive.) When Rachel wishes she could get advice about how to deal with her cheating husband from her dead mother, she stops and gives you her recipe for toasted almonds. When she throws a pie in her husband’s face, she tells you exactly how she baked that sucker.

Rachel cooks, in part, because she is ashamed that she’s a romantic, and channeling her feelings into food provides her with cover. “I had been just as dopey about food and love as any old-fashioned Jewish mother,” she realizes in the middle of a cooking demonstration at Macy’s. “I loved to cook, so I cooked. And then the cooking became a way of saying I love you. And then the cooking became the easy way of saying I love you. And then the cooking became the only way of saying I love you.”

That, Rachel concludes, is why she didn’t know her husband was cheating on her: She was too busy cooking for him. She fetishizes food into a symbol of their love, fantasizing darkly that he’s staying with her merely for her famous vinaigrette, and if she ever teaches him the recipe, he’ll abscond with it to his mistress and then teach her to make it. (The same vinaigrette featured heavily in last year’s Olivia Wilde-Jason Sudeikis divorce drama, with the vinaigrette apparently playing a role for Sudeikis eerily similar to the one it does for Rachel.)

Romance is tricky in Rachel’s glamorous, flinty milieu, where everyone is just a little too intellectual and a little too into psychoanalysis to feel their feelings outright. Ephron evokes this world with biting comedic precision: Washingtonian movers and shakers milling around parties gossiping about each other’s affairs; New York cynics having power lunches and gossiping about their therapists. Rachel belongs to a psychoanalytic group that includes one woman she hates and one famous actress. A robber follows her to group off the subway and holds them all at gunpoint, and then after he leaves, the group starts talking about whether he was hot or not. Who wouldn’t turn to potatoes for a little comfort in the midst of all that?

Part of the joy of Ephron’s cinematic work is that it is so warm. Watching her movies means escaping into a world where everyone lives their lives on the Upper West Side in a variety of exquisite knits, eating excellent food in their quirkily bohemian apartments, swapping quips, and offering each other swoon-worthy declarations of love. It’s an atmosphere you can sink into luxuriously, like a bubble bath, and it stands out all the more against the coolness of Ephron’s early work.

Heartburn offers us a glimpse of where that warmth comes from. It’s an escape from the frigidity of the world that was Ephron’s first subject, a fantasy all the more compelling for being so removed. In Heartburn, Ephron indulges in longing for the world that she would later build herself onscreen.

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