Monday, February 25, 2013

{review} heartburn

Nora Ephron Heartburn (1983)
If I had it to do over again, I would have made a different kind of pie. The pie I threw at Mark made a terrific mess, but a blueberry pie would have been even better, since it would have permanently ruined his new blazer, the one he bought with Thelma. But Betty said bring a Key lime pie, so I did.
A marker of how much I like a book is the irritating appearance of this little note when I check my Kindle highlights: "You have reached the clipping limit for this item". With Nora Ephron's Heartburn, this appeared well, well, well before I'd reached the end.


Why did I love it? Funny, heart-breaking, cynical, gorgeously written. Did I say funny? A survival text for picking yourself up and moving on. And it also has recipes! If you love tales of love, loss, lust and gluttony, this is for you.

My edition has a foreword by Ephron explaining that she wrote it after the break-up of her own marriage to the journalist Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame). It caused quite a scandal at the time, being a thinly disguised semi-autobiographical account of how a wife discovers her husband's affair at a moment when she is seven months pregnant. 

Ephron's heroine is not strictly herself - as she notes, "One of the things I’m proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is." 

Or, as her narrator puts it:
Vera said: ‘Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?’
So I told her why:
Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.
Ephron's protagonist Rachel Samstat is a television cook and very much a New York girl ("‘Too New York’ is what the last network that was approached about me responded, which is a cute way of being anti-Semitic, but who cares?"). The failing marriage is not her first. And the responsibility for what has happened, as we see as the novel unfolds, is perhaps not as clear-cut as we are initially led to believe. There is a good deal of sheer selfishness, on both sides. But it is a tragedy, even if so wittily upcycled into comedy.  
If pregnancy were a book, they would cut the last two chapters. The beginning is glorious, especially if you’re lucky enough not to have morning sickness and if, like me, you’ve had small breasts all your life. Suddenly they begin to grow, and you’ve got them, you’ve really got them, breasts, darling breasts, and when you walk down the street they bounce, truly they do, they bounce bounce bounce. You find yourself staring in the mirror for long stretches of time, playing with them, cupping them in your hands, pushing them this way and that, making cleavage, making cleavage vanish, standing sideways, leaning over, sticking them out as far as they’ll go, breasts, fantastic tender apricot breasts, then charming plucky firm tangerines, and then, just as you were on the verge of peaches, oranges, grapefruit, cantaloupes, God knows what other blue-ribbon county-fair specimens, your stomach starts to grow, and the other fruits are suddenly irrelevant because they’re outdistanced by an honest-to-God watermelon. You look more idiotically out of proportion than ever in your life. You feel such nostalgia for the scrawny, imperfect body you left behind; and the commonsense knowledge that you will eventually end up shaped approximately the way you began is all but obliterated by the discomfort of not being able to sleep on your stomach and of peeing ever so slightly every time you cough and of leaking droplets from your breasts onto your good silk blouses and of suddenly finding yourself expert in mysteries you hadn’t expected to comprehend until middle age, mysteries like swollen feet, varicose veins, neuritis, neuralgia, acid indigestion and heartburn. Heartburn. That, it seemed to me as I lay in bed, was what I was suffering from. That summed up the whole mess: heartburn. Compound heartburn. Double-digit heartburn. Terminal heartburn.
The narrative structure works extremely well, cutting back and forwards and into the middle of her two major relationships. The action shifts between her beloved New York (home of all foodie delights) and her husband Mark's base in Washington ("a city where you can’t even buy a decent bagel"). Food - and what food can mean in relation to love and giving and sensuousness and sex - is terrifically important to the book.
But I realized as I stood there doing my demonstration in the middle of the Macy’s housewares department that I had been as dopey about food and love as any old-fashioned Jewish mother. I loved to cook, so I cooked. And then the cooking became a way of saying I love you. And then the cooking became the easy way of saying I love you. And then the cooking became the only way of saying I love you. I was so busy perfecting the peach pie that I wasn’t paying attention. I had never even been able to imagine an alternative. Every so often I would look at my women friends who were happily married and didn’t cook, and I would always find myself wondering how they did it. Would anyone love me if I couldn’t cook? I always thought cooking was part of the package: Step right up, it’s Rachel Samstat, she’s bright, she’s funny, and she can cook!
Seriously, I laughed, cried and drooled.
We had driven miles to find the world’s creamiest cheesecake and the world’s largest pistachio nut and the world’s sweetest corn on the cob. We had spent hours in blind taste testings of kosher hot dogs and double chocolate chip ice cream. When Julie went home to Fort Worth, she flew back with spareribs from Angelo’s Beef Bar-B-Q, and when I went to New York, I flew back with smoked butterfish from Russ and Daughters. Once, in New Orleans, we all went to Mosca’s for dinner, and we ate marinated crab, baked oysters, barbecued shrimp, spaghetti bordelaise, chicken with garlic, sausage with potatoes, and on the way back to town, a dozen oysters each at the Acme and beignets and coffee with chicory on the wharf. Then Arthur said, ‘Let’s go to Chez Helene for the bread pudding,’ and we did, and we each had two. The owner of Chez Helene gave us the bread pudding recipe when we left, and I’m going to throw it in because it’s the best bread pudding I’ve ever eaten. It tastes like caramelized mush. Cream 2 cups sugar with 2 sticks butter. Then add 2½ cups milk, one 13-ounce can evaporated milk, 2 tablespoons nutmeg, 2 tablespoons vanilla, a loaf of wet bread in chunks and pieces (any bread will do, the worse the better) and 1 cup raisins. Stir to mix. Pour into a deep greased casserole and bake at 350° for 2 hours, stirring after the first hour. Serve warm with hard sauce.
Highly recommended. 

10 comments:

  1. After reading one of Nora Ephron's essay collections, I put this on my "to read someday" list - but after reading your review, I want to read it *right now*! and I don't even like bread pudding, but I'm drooling over that recipe.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Lisa May - I am busting to read more of her writing now; however her recent death seems to have caused some price-raising, so I might have to wait a bit. Bah!

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  2. Anything Nora Ephron writes (wrote) I adore. But I haven't read this one and so now it's on the "read it soon" list, because I need a good laugh or two or three! And I love cooking so of course I will love it for that, too. She is a gem and I so miss the thought that this bright voice was extinguished. I'm glad she left quite the legacy.

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    Replies
    1. It will definitely give you a lift, Jeanie! I am so happy that I've discovered her wonderful writing.

      Delete
  3. I love Nora Ephron's wit and honesty. I can't believe I haven't read this one yet! And the food writing, wow. This is clearly a book one needs to read with a snack in hand.

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    Replies
    1. There's a recipe she gives for fried almonds that nearly made me cry with food lust! It's a great read, Elizabeth.

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  4. What a great quote. I haven't read the book or seen the film but it sounds great. I'm seriously tempted to get hold of a copy.

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    Replies
    1. It's well worth it, Sarah - funny, cynical, and all that luscious food!

      Delete
  5. Sounds an amazing combination, added to the wishlist. I always imagined Ephron to be stuffy - stars knows where I got that idea from - but clearly I was wrong and have missed out!

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    Replies
    1. I thought she might be a bit annoying, given how annoying I found the film of Sleepless in Seattle. But I'm converted.

      Delete

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