Nora Ephron is a journalist-writer-editor and commentator on popular culture. Heartburn, her first novel, received mixed reviews: Some admired her comic wit, while others denigrated her talent, plot, and characterization. Many questioned the appropriateness of writing a roman à clef (a story based on one’s own life with characters who are versions of real people) in the wake of her own much-publicized divorce from Carl Bernstein, the celebrated journalist and Watergate investigator.

Ephron entertains her readers and sticks pins in the egos of her chief antagonists, her former husband and his paramour, hoping perhaps to reduce her own emotional anguish while increasing theirs. Although the plot twists in Heartburn seem awkward and coincidental, they nevertheless catapult the reader into the fray, held in Rachel’s sly, ironic grip from her first discovery of the affair to the climactic childbirth scene. As a farce, Heartburn fulfills its expectations of both high and low comedy, and although its characters are not heroic, their reactions are believable.

Ephron’s voice is occasionally strident, but she reveals her own faults with those of her former husband. It is this candor and appeal to the reader’s humanity that is most effective in this suspiciously simplistic romp. One does not mind that Rachel’s jealousy of Thelma reduces her to name-calling (she is “a clever giant” who “makes these gluey puddings”). As a cookbook author, Rachel is so focused on food that she really believes that Mark should not have had the gall to have an affair with a bad cook. It never occurs to her that there is more to marriage than sex and food.

Yet sex and food are the only things of importance in this book, even though fidelity is in no way a function of either. It is this same illogical view that enables Mark to have...

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