Back in the 1990s, I was an ardent devotee of the romantic comedies of Nora Ephron. I watched When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail over and over again. I wanted to be like the smart, introspective, slightly quirky women in those movies. I wanted their lifestyles, their friends, and most of all I wanted to meet the smart, introspective, slightly quirky men they ended up with.

Despite my affection for her movies, I never actually read any of Ephron’s books, but I finally took the plunge this week and read Heartburn, a novel about a smart, introspective, slightly quirky woman and the man she ended up with. Unlike my beloved romantic comedies from Ephron, however, this romance doesn’t have a happy ending.

Rachel Samstat writes cookbooks interspersed with essays about the recipes. When the novel opens, she is seven months pregnant and has just discovered that her husband, Washington columnist Mark Forman, is having an affair with a mutual friend. Over the course of the novel, she looks back over her relationship with Mark and looks ahead to her future, considering whether it should include Mark or not. (The book was to some degree based on Ephron’s own failed marriage to Carl Bernstein.)

In many ways, the book reads like early chick lit. Rachel displays the same self-deprecating humor of a lot of chick lit heroines, plus there are several moments of slapstick comedy—a robbery at a self-help group, a pie throwing, things like that. Because the book was published in 1983, some of the cultural references might feel dated (she talks about Donahue, instead of Oprah). I’m old enough to recognize the references, but younger readers might not. Overall, though, the confessional quality and biting humor of Rachel’s voice work as well today as they would have in the early 80s. Here’s an example in which Rachel looks back on her first marriage:

The reason my marriage to Charlie broke up—although by now you’re probably astonished that it lasted even a minute—was not because he slept with my oldest friend Brenda or even that he got crabs from her. It was because Arnold [his hamster] died. I felt really sad when Arnold died, because Charlie was devoted to Arnold and had invented a fairly elaborate personality for Arnold that Arnold did his best to live up to. Hamsters don’t really do that much, but Charlie had built up an entire character for Arnold and made up a lot of hamster jokes he claimed Arnold had come up with, mostly having to do with chopped lettuce. Also, and I’m sorry to tell you this, Charlie often talked in a high, squeaky voice that was meant to be Arnold’s, and I’m even sorrier to tell you that I often replied in a high, squeaky voice that was meant to be Shirley’s [another hamster]. You enter into a certain amount of madness when you marry a person with pets, but I didn’t care. When Charlie and I were married, I was twenty-five and eleven months old, and I was such a ninny that I thought: Thank God I’m getting married now, before I’m twenty-six and washed up.

In general, if you find the conversation in Ephron’s movies funny, you’ll probably find this book funny too. (A few lines from this novel actually showed up in When Harry Met Sally. So yes, the comedy suited me fine.)

And the book isn’t just laughs. Like the best chick lit (I’d put Bridget Jones’s Diary in that category), it also offers some smart thinking about the way men and women relate to each other, both for good and for ill. Plus, there are a few recipes that don’t sound half bad. (I’m a sucker for a good bread pudding recipe.)

Also reviewed by Verity at Verity’s Virago Venture who said, “I found this book entertaining and sharp…”

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21 Responses to Heartburn

  1. bookssnob says:

    I LOVE Nora Ephron films. I still long to be Kathleen Kelly with my adorable apartment and children’s bookshop and a handsome cad snapping at my heels via AOL instant messaging!

    This sounds very interesting and I’d love to read it!

    • Teresa says:

      Rachel, It’s Sally Allbright that I always wanted to be. (It probably didn’t hurt that friends told me I had a head start with some of my picky eating habits.) Mostly I just love how she unapologetically is who she is.

  2. I was a huge fan of Nora Ephron films too (the tears over The End of the Affair, ah…) I’ve had Heartburn on my shelf for the longest time and, in actual fact, pushed Verity to buy it! My copy remains unread but one day, one day soon…

    • Teresa says:

      Claire, Funny thing about the tears over An Affair to Remember–I watched that movie not long after seeing Sleepless in Seattle and hated it. But I still love how Meg Ryan and Rosie O’Donnell’s characters interact over it—“You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie!” Ha!

  3. Steph says:

    I still love When Harry Met Sally! It’s one of those movies that I can watch over and over again and never tire of. I think I once watched it twice in a row one day when I was sick, and loved it just as much the second time through…

    I knew Ephron wrote books, but I’ve never really thought of picking any of the up, despite enjoying her movies. This one sounds good though!

    • Teresa says:

      Steph, When Harry Met Sally is quite possibly my favorite contemporary romantic comedy. I could totally imagine watching in twice in a day. Unfortunately, I think my love of that movie did a fair bit of damage to some of my friendships with men, LOL.

  4. Verity says:

    Oh I loved this! I’m glad Claire persuaded me to buy it – another wonderful book I came to through Virago.

  5. Deb says:

    If you like Efron’s fiction, you’ll probably enjoy her non-fiction collections. I liked WALLFLOWER AT THE ORGY and CRAZY SALAD from the 1970s–although, as you noted above, some of the cultural references are dated, but the humor still comes through. I was less enchanted with Efron’s more recent collection, I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK–perhaps because I’m now “a woman of a certain age” and those essays hit closer to home–ha-ha!

    • Teresa says:

      Deb, I do want to read her nonfiction. I remember going on a hunt for Crazy Salad years ago, but my library didn’t have it. I’ll admit her new collection doesn’t appeal to me either. I’m not quite old enough to relate yet, but old enough to see those days coming!

  6. Lightheaded says:

    I read this at least a decade ago and loved it. I still remember the key lime pie at the end :)

  7. Jenny says:

    This sounds pretty good, and I’m not usually a fan of chick lit (though I fell for both When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail.)

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, Well, if it makes you less hesitant, this technically isn’t chick lit, since the term wasn’t in use then. I think it has to be counted as an influence though. The similarities are clear. As I think you know, I see chick lit as being like a lot of genres. There’s good and bad in it. The trick is finding the good.

  8. I read this last year and really enjoyed it as well. I thought it was really funny and I cared about Rachel. I also thought it was interesting that she was married to Bernstein and he had an affair while she was pregnant. I guess she got the last laugh with this book!

    • Teresa says:

      Lindsey, I understand that Bernstein was none too pleased about this book, and I can understand why! But you know, you cheat on a pregnant wife who happens to be a writer, you shouldn’t be surprised if she finds a way to heap scorn upon you.

  9. Jenny says:

    I have actually never seen Sleepless in Seattle – it looks, um, maybe not like the best movie in all the land? Of course I thought that about When Harry Met Sally, too, and that’s become one of my major comfort movies.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, Sleepless is probably my least favorite of the three I mentioned, but I still love it. Ephron is great with dialogue, and the characters’ conversations are such a pleasure to listen to.

  10. Frances says:

    I still love all those 1990s romantic comedies. Count them as some of my favorites right along the screwball romantic comedies of Preston Sturges. And agree with your assessment that this is a smart, satisfying read no matter what genre you place it in.

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