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…”