Shelf Care: Nora Ephron's Heartburn is a warm, hilariously witty read




By Nora Ephron
Virago/1983, reissued 2018/192 pages/Paperback/$19.94/Available here 

Rachel Samstat writes cookbooks for a living. When she is seven months pregnant, she discovers that her husband, a newspaper columnist, has been cheating on her with a friend.

To deal with the awfulness of it all, she puts pen to paper and what ensues is about 200 pages of hilarious, witty personal observations about love, marriage and divorce - folded in with recipes for bread pudding, cheesecake and other comfort foods.

Nora Ephron's Heartburn was published in 1983. It is heavily autobiographical, drawing on her journalist husband Carl Bernstein's much-publicised affair.

Infidelity may be a grim topic, but Heartburn never stews in melancholia.

Its matter-of-fact, conversational style feels like something out of a romcom - indeed, much of it would not feel out of place in a movie like When Harry Met Sally... (1989), which the late Ephron, incidentally, wrote the screenplay for.

The writing is sharp and there are more than a few acerbic remarks.

"Beware of men who cry," writes Rachel. "It's true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own."

At its heart, Ephron's novel is a warm, life-affirming read, its narrator occasionally swaddling herself in the mindless, reassuring activity of cooking.

"What I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It's a sure thing! It's a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure; 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."

Relationships are never easy - that much we know. But with a dash of wit, compassion and the consolations of food and writing, one finds a way for life to go on.

  • Shelf Care is a twice-weekly column that recommends uplifting, comforting or escapist books to read while staying home during the Covid-19 pandemic.