I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Nora Ephron, one of the women writers I most admire. Ephron had a special place in my heart. Her book “Heartburn” holds a place of honor on my imaginary shelf of “lifesaving books.”
I was in the midst of a terrible breakup crisis when I was given this book by a friend who’d been through a similar crisis a few months before, and had brought the book back with her from New York. At that point my ability to concentrate was limited to leafing through magazines while sitting in the bathtub and hoping that the sound of the flowing water would keep my children from hearing my sobs. My friends, male and female, who needed oceans of patience to keep putting up with the weepy and incredibly boring creature I’d become, would drop by unannounced every so often just to make sure I was still alive and to try to persuade me to eat something (yes, I lost a lot of weight during that time), but Naomi decided one day to take a different approach.
“You’re a mother. You have to keep on living and you don’t get the privilege of going mad,” she informed me. Then she stuck the paperback copy of the book in my hands and commanded me to read it immediately “but not in the tub, so you don’t get it all wet.”
Amazingly, the book did the trick, and more. To me, it was a spectacular discovery. For the first time in my life I saw that writing could really seem like effortless alchemy, that one didn’t have to scream in desperate pain like a tortured poet. Like Ephron, you could approach personal crises and disasters with humor, turn them like everything else in life into a story (as her psychologist accuses her of doing) and thereby bring relief not only to herself but to millions of women readers (after all, “Heartburn” is really a book for women).
For anyone not familiar with the saga behind the book: Ephron was married (this was her second marriage) to Carl Bernstein of the famed Woodward and Bernstein team that broke the Watergate story. When she was in an advanced state of pregnancy with their second child, she found out that her husband, a darling of the Washington, D.C. set, was having an affair with the wife of the British consul.
The worst thing about such a situation is that you can’t cheat on him back, Ephron wrote in her very nonfictional novel. She goes on to learn that her husband is a serial cheater who could “have sex with a Venetian blind.”
The tale of the revelation and the divorce is the basis for a book whose every third line is a brilliant insight or amusing but also very accurate comment on the nature of men, women and relationships. It is also sprinkled with a bunch of darn good recipes. Ephron, the real-life version as well as her alter-ego in the book, wrote for years for various newspapers on a variety of subjects, including food and cooking.
This book is the only example I know of a revenge novel that turned out well. A number of Israeli writers, male and female, have tried their hand at it, with embarrassing results at best. Back then, as I read “Heartburn” for the first of what would be dozens of times, the thought also crossed my mind that fortunately I never took a stab at doing that myself, having found that any revenge that must be eaten cold doesn’t whet my appetite. What courage it took for Ephron to reveal so much of herself and, armed with words alone and a heaping dose of humor and cynicism, to face up to all the agony caused her by the great American journalist of the era, and to ruthlessly skewer him.
Is it any wonder that, over the years, I must have ordered at least 10 copies of the book, in English, to give out to my brokenhearted girlfriends? Not all of them found solace in it, but each and every one became a keen Ephron fan. This book, which publicly exposed Bernstein’s sleaziness, dealt a knockout blow to his already teetering career, while it made Ephron a millionaire and launched her career when it was subsequently made into a (not terribly successful) movie starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Although Ephron did not write the screenplay, it gave her the idea to take up writing screenplays, as both her parents had.
I saw “When Harry Met Sally...,” for which she cowrote the script, 11 times. “Sleepless in Seattle,” which she directed, I only saw two or three times.
Ephron was less successful as a director than as a writer, and even though she was a strong and witty woman with a great talent for sarcasm, critics accused her of tending toward romantic schmaltz – as if intelligence is diametrically opposed to romance, as if cynicism isn’t the flip side of emotionalism, and as if we don’t all get a bit schmaltzy when a touching romantic story is set before us.
She was said to have been the most commercially successful woman director in Hollywood, and in this she was certainly a pioneer. But to me, Ephron’s greatest importance is as a writer and essayist. I bought her last book of essays, “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” on the day the first copies arrived, hot off the press, at the Barnes & Noble store in Union Square, New York City, two years ago. This was just hours before my flight back to Israel and of course I finished most of the book in the first three hours of the flight. I quickly read the whole thing a second time, asking myself all the while how it was possible that in a far-off land and in a language so unlike my mother tongue, there was this woman who could describe my feelings precisely as I would like to describe them myself even if, not having reached that age yet, I still felt okay about my own neck.
Word of my heroine’s death reached me as I was still in the hospital, four days after a young and arrogant intern decided, of his own accord, and quite prematurely, to inform me of the possibility that I had a malignant disease.
If brilliant, spectacularly witty women like Nora Ephron die from cancer, I thought, what can a relative slacker like me say, and what good will all the dumb jokes do that I come armed with when I go to talk with the doctors in the hope that if I just make them laugh enough, they’ll give me a pass on the cancer?
Two days later, the doctor happily informed me that the findings were actually benign and that my life, which turns out not to have been in danger, had been given back to me as a gift.
Ephron had the sense of humor, but I had the luck.