It is rare for me to read consecutive books by the same author, but Nora Ephron’s are both very short and very funny and therefore eminently binge-readable. Best known as a screenwriter and director of films such as ‘Sleepless in Seattle’, ‘You’ve Got Mail’ and ‘Julie and Julia’, Ephron’s career began in journalism in the 1960s. Her essay collection ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck And Other Thoughts On Being a Woman’ was published in 2006 and has recently been reissued.
Some of the things Ephron discusses in these short essays might be regarded by some as first-world problems, but she writes with real warmth and she is particularly good at observing women’s insecurities around ageing. Like all good comedy, the second essay ‘I Hate My Purse’ will elicit instant recognition in anyone who has ever used a handbag and emptied the detritus that accumulates in there. The final essay ‘What I Wish I’d Known’ offers pearls of wisdom such as “Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from” and “The world’s greatest babysitter burns out after two and a half years”. There is also a “break-up” letter with Bill Clinton, and an account about working as an intern at the White House in 1961. I wonder what she would have had to say about current topics of conversation such as #MeToo and Donald Trump’s presidency.
Ephron’s final collection of essays ‘I Remember Nothing And Other Reflections’ was published in 2010. She had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in 2006 and had kept this secret from most people before her death in 2012 aged 71, but there are clues in the themes of this collection that she knew her health was declining. The final chapters are simply lists of things she will and won’t miss. It’s not all doom and gloom though – there are also plenty of lighthearted vignettes on becoming addicted to online Scrabble games, how much she hates email and anecdotes about her early career in journalism.
Ephron’s only novel ‘Heartburn’ was published in 1983. She also wrote the screenplay of the 1986 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson which was less well received compared to the book. As Ephron notes in the introduction, it is a “thinly disguised” account of the circumstances of her second divorce: “I thinly disguised my ex-husband by giving him a beard that belonged to one of my friends.” Having read some of Ephron’s non-fiction before ‘Heartburn’, it is clear just how autobiographical the novel is. Based in Washington, Rachel Samstat is a food writer married to Mark Feldman, a political journalist. Rachel finds out about his affair with Thelma Rice when she is heavily pregnant with her second child, just as Ephron did when her journalist husband Carl Bernstein had an affair with Margaret Jay, wife of the British ambassador. Rachel also shares Ephron’s love of cooking (there are numerous recipes throughout) and her sharp and ironic observations about the end of a marriage align closely with Ephron’s essays on divorce. This is an excellent comic novel and it comes across as very cathartic for Ephron to write about such painful events with a comedic slant.