Advantages Very funny, very moving, ever so catty!
Disadvantages Might be a bit too near the knuckle for some people
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|How does it compare to other works by the same author?|
There's surely never a good time to tell your wife you've fallen in love with another woman, but Mark's timing is particularly poor. Rachel is seven months pregnant with his child and running around after their toddler when she comes across an inscription in a book from Mark's lover and realises what's been going on. Maybe she could have coped if it were just an affair – it wouldn't be the first time Mark had played away from home - but he seems almost relieved to be confronted so he can share with Rachel how much in love he is. To add insult to injury Rachel knows his new woman, Thelma Rice, and her husband. Thelma's a Washington hostess who is repeatedly described by Rachel as having 'a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb' and despite reading this description many times, I'm still a bit baffled about whether either was supposed to be a compliment. Is a nose as long as a thumb a good thing or a bad thing, and is this nose obsession somehow related to Rachel and Mark's Jewishness? I checked and my nose is shorter than my thumb and I still don't know if that's good or bad. It's one of the many baffling things about Nora Ephron's 'Heartburn'.
Rachel's first husband Charlie ran off with a woman called Brenda whom she had envied all through her school days. Husband number one was seemingly no great loss but Rachel is not ready to give up on Mark so easily. She's sure that she'll wake up one morning and he'll be back knocking on the door, saying it's all been a terrible mistake and he wants her back. That's initially what she wants but as the book progresses she's forced to challenge whether it's ever worth taking back a cheating husband. Being dumped isn't all bad; Rachel's suddenly allowed to fantasise about strangers on the Underground (even ones without a college education, even ones who might turn out to be muggers) and old flames flicker out of the woodwork to stake their claims for her in the post-Mark era. On the other hand, Thelma's husband turns up to blame her for his wife's relationship with Mark and half her friends still keep coming to ask her WHO is Thelma cheating with. There's a clear sense that regardless of what's happened it must be the woman's fault – in this case the woman who's been cheated on.
There's nothing particularly novel about a story of marital collapse so why does 'Heartburn' qualify for the 'modern classic' designation? Perhaps because it's just so well written, more likely because it's a very 'real' story, but probably it helps that it's incredibly and irreverently funny about a topic which shouldn't be. Other reviews I've seen suggest that not everyone gets the joke and many readers don't like the character of Rachel and find something uncomfortable about jilted spouses cracking jokes about their situation. Personally I thought it was laugh out loud funny in places and I can relate to humour as a weapon against distress. What makes the book significant – and probably got it onto the Virago Modern Classics list – is that it's an empowering book about not putting up with the crap of a loveless marriage just for the sake of the kids, written at a time when that's pretty much what women were expected to do. In 1982 divorce rates were at an all time high in the USA, but still nothing like as high as they are 30 years later. At that time nice girls just didn't talk about divorce or failed relationships – as Ephron said, they were supposed to “curl up and go to Connecticut”. I had a boyfriend in my student days a few years post Heartburn whose mother was still begging him not to tell the neighbours that his step-father was not his father. Things got better of course once most of the royal family had divorces and the stigma reduced.In the midst of personal tragedy, Rachel taps into a rich seam of comedy gold. If you like Woody Allen, imagine he was a woman and you'd get just a taster of the deliciously zany Jewish humour of Nora Ephron. If you don't like Woody Allen, then don't let this put you off as Ephron's middle-aged neurotic Jewish heroine is entirely her own woman.
It's hard to imagine that Carl Bernstein (he of Watergate fame) ever lived down Ephron's description of Mark as a man who would “have sex with a Venetian blind” and his lover, Margaret Jay (James Callaghan's daughter), can't have been too happy about her friends and neighbours being told she had herpes and about repeatedly being described as much too tall but I'm willing to bet Ephron felt better for getting things off her chest.
All quotations except the title one are from Heartburn and all are from Nora Ephron
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