“I have friends who begin with pasta, and friends who begin with rice, but whenever I fall in love, I begin with potatoes.”
When cookbook writer Rachel Samstat discovers her husband, Mark, is cheating on her while pregnant with their second child, she isn’t laughing. But as days pass and Rachel untangles which stories of her marriage hold true and which she relied on in order to believe Mark is the man she needed, the humor starts running hot as the charm of the relationship turns cold. Scorned, scathing, and side-splittingly funny, Ephron explores heartbreak and all its side dishes.
Heartburn. By Nora Ephron. Vintage Contemporaries. 1983. Paperback.
How did I get the book?
Nora Ephron is my only god. Her essays made me want to write essays, if only because I couldn’t live inside her films. And yet I had never read her only novel. Thankfully, this book as a holiday gift changed such.
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What did I think?
The novel predominantly captures heartache through Rachel, examining what it’s like for her to find out about something and feel stupid, followed by wondering when it will ever stop hurting. “I've been shot in the brain, I thought,” Rachel says, “and all I can come up with are clichés about being shot in the heart.” Ephorn surveys the ache through details: Rachel discovering Mark’s credit card statements littered with fancy flower receipts for his mistress while knowing he only occasionally brought her “a bunch of wilted zinnias”; Rachel debating whether staying in bed or the bathtub all day is more indicative of a nervous breakdown as she laments a future of making mashed potatoes for one; Rachel identifying “I think we’d better have a talk” as “the seven worst words in the English language.” But Rachel’s wallowing is two-fold, serving to both nurse her hurt and fuel her denial over having been so focused on what it meant to be a couple that she lost track of who Mark wanted to be coupled with, that he could possibly be the kind of man to apologize without affection. “For a long time, I didn't believe him. And then I believed him,” Rachel says. “The truth is that the only really awful thing I knew about Mark Feldman was that he had betrayed me.” Still, she spends a lot of time wanting him back: he’s a schmuck but he’s her schmuck.
Rachel’s denial also spirals into generally obsessive tendancies. Every time she sees a man she wonders if he’s single, if he’s straight, if he has a college degree (thoughts so distracting that she doesn’t pick up on someone actually being a robber…). She is constantly trying to control the narrative. “I don't have to make everything into a joke,” she tells her therapist. “I have to make everything into a story.” This connects to her love of cooking, too: “After a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour…it will get thick…it has a mathematical certainty in a world where those of us who long for some kind of certainty are forced to settle for crossword puzzles.” Unfortunately, matters of the heart are rarely so neat. “You can love someone—or want to love someone—so much that you don't see anything at all,” Rachel finally admits. “Then when something does turn out to be wrong, it isn't that you knew all along, it's that you were somewhere else.” But even as she comes to terms with the inevitable infidelity of men and that sometimes the only permeance she will be able to feel in a relationship could be in writing it down to have and to manipulate, Rachel still cannot forgo her obsessive tendancies. “People are always telling me to relax,” she says, “but the only time I think I've ever really relaxed in my entire life was for three minutes in the Pension Building dancing with Mark Feldman.”
Rachel is also self-deprecating. She blames herself for falling for men who are “odd and interesting-looking,” whose best way of hiding an affair is claiming they’re going to the dentist or buying socks (“It doesn't matter how smart you are if both your husbands manage to prove how dumb you are as easily as mine had.”), seeing it as a reflection of herself: “Water seeks its own level…It must have had something to do with me...Because if it didn't, there's nothing I can do about it.” Rachel constantly puts herself down, comparing herself to a character in a trashy novel and being insultingly ignorant for wanting to get married. She even darkly jokes that her child is born pre-maturely because he could feel something inside of her dying. “I wanted more than anything to be the kind of cool and confident person who could treat her as if she were no more trouble to me than an old piece of chewing gum I had accidentally stepped in,” she admits. “But clearly I wasn't cut out to be that kind of person.” The closest Rachel ever gets to feeling this way is with Mark, when he makes up songs for her in the early days of their relationship. “I felt secure and loved in a way I had never dreamed possible,” Rachel remembers. “I had always meant to write down some of the words, because they were so silly and funny and made me feel so happy; but I never did….I could remember the feeling, but I couldn't really remember the words.” And it’s this feeling, this thing she has always wanted, that makes it hard to stop obsessing, to get over the heartbreak, to just throw a pie in Mark’s face and not care about the mess on the linoleum floor.
🌟 3.75/5 — Very Good
Ephron is a wizard when it comes to crafting an image (after all, there’s a reason there’s an Instagram account dedicated to her film interiors). From describing Rachel’s initial shock of discovering the affair as, “Catapulting from the peanut-butter-and-jellynuss of my life into High Drama...the dream equivalent of the cereal box with the baby on it eating breakfast next to the cereal box with the baby on it eating breakfast, forever and ever,” to talking about her first husband’s devotion to his pet hamster Arnold by explaining he “put hospital corners on the newspaper he lined the hamster cage with” and “invented a fairly elaborate personality for Arnold that Arnold did his best to live up to,” Ephron has an ear. It’s even better when it gets tragic, like when Rachel realizes that Mark was buying a necklace for his mistress while she was in labor. “If I tell the story, I control the version,” Rachel asserts. “I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me…it doesn't hurt as much…I can get on with it.” She’s not wrong.
However, some might find Rachel (and by proximity Ephorn) unlikeable, someone who dislikes people simply because they are thin, pretty, and well-endowed and who hates her husband so much she sometimes imagines him dying in a plane crash then who she’d flirt with at the funeral. Sure, these things are terrible to admit, but it’s also sort of refreshing to have someone be honest about their flaws, who in being truthful also reveals deeper truths, like how difficult it is to get a good middle, or that betrayal feels good because it can momentarily bring you some something without worry of sins. Best of all is when she calls out men for only being sensitive to their own feelings. So even if you don’t agree with the caddiness, you can probably relate to having once hidden your own anger and pain for the sake of keeping the peace, and forgive the woman for wanting to hide her vinaigrette recipe from her ex-husband.
Beyond the book.
Heartburn is largely autobiographical, inspired by Ephron’s marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein (whom I still snarl at whenever he shows up on CNN), which ended shortly after she discovered his affair with Margaret Jay—wife of then UK ambassador to the US—and prematurely delivered their second son. Ephron also transposed the novel into a screenplay, which became a film staring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. It’s not an exact replica of the book, but it keeps the spirit, especially this scene of Rachel confronting Mark about Thelma. Carly Simon also wrote “Coming Around Again” for the film. Talk about turning pain into art.
See you again soon!