I had to take a quick break from my current anti-racist reading list to read my book club’s choice for this month. I’d put it off for ages because it was only short but we’re meeting over Zoom on Thursday. That meant I only had a couple of days to get through it. Thankfully, it’s only 170 odd pages and I managed to get in a quick read of Noughts and Crosses over the weekend first. This was the book that I voted for because I really did want to read it. I can’t say that I’m a massive fan of Nora Ephron’s films. I’m not a huge romantic comedy fan. I even disliked When Harry Met Sally and that’s a film that nearly everyone has seemingly agreed to enjoy. I admit, she certainly has a way with words and it’s not necessarily the writing that I dislike. Okay, that’s not true because the story is the writing. But it’s not a matter of quality, it’s just not my thing. I am convinced that she is a great writer and, provided I could find a story that I can get on board with, I was confident I’d enjoy it. So, why not this one? After all, people have been showing off their copies on Instagram for ages now. Although I have to admit, I hate the Virago Modern Classics diamond cover. I love a cover with texture but it doesn’t wow me. I tried so hard to track down the cover I wanted but it would have taken ages thanks to bloody Coronavirus. Of course, without Coronavirus, I wouldn’t have been in the book club anyway.
Heartburn is the semi-autobiographical story that is based on Nora Ephron’s divorce from her second husband. In reality, Carl Bernstein had an affair with Margaret Jay, the British politician, who was a mutual friend of the pair. Ephron discovered this when she was pregnant with the couple’s second child. The couple divorced in 1980 and Ephron went on to use the story as inspiration for her first novel. It was published in 1983 and turned into a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in 1986. The writer’s ex-husband threatened to sue over both but it came to nothing. You can see why he’d be pissed though. As Ephron discusses in her introduction to the novel, nothing is very well hidden. As she put it herself, “some things lose everything if they are disguised, even thinly, and that therefore it’s best to just leave them alone.”
Heartburn is the story of food writer Rachel Samstat and her journalist husband, Mark Feldman. Rachel is Jewish and moved from New York to Washington when she married Mark. Though she knew Mark’s reputation with women before they tied the know, Rachel believed that he had changed. They lived a perfectly happy marriage and celebrated the birth of their first son. It was a seeming fairy tale until 7 months into her second pregnancy when Rachel discovered that Mark had been having an affair with their mutual friend, Thelma Rice the entire time she’d been pregnant. Worse than that, Mark reveals that he has fallen in love with Thelma but asks Rachel to stay for the sake of their children. But faced with that choice or the alternative, what will Rachel do?
I really wanted to love Heartburn. I was all behind it. The autobiographical elements. The therapy that must have come out of writing this story her way. It could have a wonderful and empowering thing. The problem is, something is missing from it. It’s all very funny and charming in a way that we associate with Ephron but it’s all very one-note. There’s something of an insecurity here that means the novel rarely goes beyond desperately finding humour in sad situations. It’s all very funny but I wish there’d been a bit more sincerity. Every time you think Ephron is going to embrace her emotions, the story jumps ahead to the next funny episode.
I get that it’s probably quite a difficult thing to bare your soul in that way and maybe she wanted to hold back a little. Or maybe she was worried about how people would treat her as a novelist? Whatever the reason, I just couldn’t completely let myself be won over by it. It’s funny but we know that Nora Ephron was funny. I just wasn’t blown away. I was expecting to be noting down quotations throughout my read but I really wasn’t. With the back cover of the book featuring reviews calling it heartbreaking, I was expecting to feel the feels but I didn’t. In the novel, Rachel discusses turning everything into a story so she can get control over it. Part of me feels as though Nora Ephron tried to control her own story a bit too much. She took too much of herself out of it and I just felt unable to really connect with the story.
Although there is a lot to enjoy about this book. I loved the way that she kept chucking recipes in here and there. It was funny. It was really enjoyable and I loved the idea that this is how a food writer would write the story of how their marriage ended. It also speaks to a very human thought process. Food brings people comfort and it is a way to show love. Rachel cooks for Mark as a way to show that she loves him and, turning to familiar recipes, is a way to remember that love and keep it alive. But again, we return to the old problem of it all being one-note. It’s the kind of concept that either needs to be used carefully or really needs to be pushed to the maximum. Make the story a full-on recipe books with fragments of memoir thrown in and I’d probably have been praising it non-stop.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being a bit miserly with this because it seems so inconsequential to what I’ve been reading later? Or maybe I was just expecting great things? Whatever the reason, I just don’t think Heartburn was the novel that everyone seems to have built it up to be. I might go back to it in a year or two and see if I change my mind.
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