Friday, April 16, 2021

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron’s writing sparkles at times with witty, smart, insightful passages. But Heartburn is like a lawn strewn with divots that trip you up and knock you flat, making you want to call it a day and go on home.

She drops quips throughout the text, always shooting for the funny. And I like funny, I’m a fan of the funny. Ephron manages to fold humor into a fictional book based on her very real split from journalist Carl Bernstein, a decidedly unfunny situation. The story features a main character discovering her husband is cheating at a time when she's got a 2-year-old and is 7 months pregnant. That either comes spilling out of your pen as tragedy, or you take it on the chin and spit it back out wrapped in humor. This works fantastically when done well; some of the best comedy is actually tragedy told with a humorous bent. (Don’t believe me? Watch Muriel’s Wedding and get back to me.) 

The problem is, Ephron keeps tripping you up with so-called humor that’s painfully … well, let’s call it insensitive. Not PC? Dated? Characters that aren't straight, white, and average height are often described with a supposedly pithy comment that’s painfully unfunny and simply a shitty remark. For instance, she calls a Guatemalan therapist a “refried taco,” among other things. How was that ever considered amusing, even back when “PC” meant “personal computer?”

What's worse, she does this so assuredly, feeling her readers will be right there cackling along with her. I can only assume those lines were considered humorous by many when this came out in 1983, because Ephron wouldn’t have included them if she wasn’t sure they'd get a few chortles. But by whom, I can’t tell you. I’m a Gen Xer, so I was fully alive when this hit bookstores, but too young to be aware of Nora Ephron. I was much too busy trying to stay up late enough to catch music videos on Night Flight because we didn’t have MTV, and do you know how much better my childhood would’ve been if we’d had MTV, dammit?!

If I could wave a magic delete button over this novel and take out all those iffy comments, it would be a modestly funny, light read. It also could’ve been done as a book of essays instead of fiction (especially since it was heavily based on her life). The result would have been a lightly comical nonfiction book with real, poignant moments sprinkled throughout the text. IF she’d had an editor who cut the cruddy comments, or if she'd not been so confident that she could include that mess herself.

As is, comments like “refried taco” just kick you right out of any bit of humor you might be seeing, any momentum the story might be gaining. I almost gave up a few times, but so many talented, intelligent woman find Ephron incredibly inspiring that I wanted to try to see if I could find reflections of that in the book, so I stuck with it.

At the end of the day, I think I could’ve given this book three stars if there’d been some cuts. I don’t know what to think of it as is; three stars seem generous given the parts I hated, while two seems stingy given the parts I liked. My compromise is to leave it starless. I was so baffled by how people could sing her praises that I even went back and rewatched Everything is Copy, the documentary Ephron’s son did about her. I’d seen it when it came out, which gave me the initial desire to read/watch more of her work, but I promptly forgot most of it.

This time, watching the doc while partway through the book and having Googled a bit about her life, I was ready to take it in. The documentary describes how much work she churned out and how much her work meant to so many people, so many women. That narrative really landed with me more than on the first viewing. I loved When Harry Met Sally, and when it came out I had no idea she wrote/directed it. The doc highlighted even more of her humor and accomplishments, and the tough (shall we say “mean”) streak she had.

I wanted to like Heartburn. No, I *did* like it, modestly, much of the time. Even before you get into how good this could have been if she’d put more into character and plot development, I think it was still good as a lighthearted take on a bleak situation. But the divots in the lawn tripped me up.

Note: I read this back in 2019 and didn't know what to do with my thoughts on it. I wrote a review for Goodreads at the time, but was conflicted about my negative reaction because of how beloved Ephron was, how she's held up as a role model for female writers and directors. I couldn't bring myself to post it on my blog; it felt like bashing a sacred cow. But fuck it, it's my blog and when I saw mention of this book again recently, I remembered I had a review I'd never posted here. 

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