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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 an affair with a woman who is in every way inferior to his wife and to feel no guilt for this betrayal. Mark’s sense of loyalty is so warped that, after revealing his illicit affair, he angrily berates Rachel for a rumor that Mark’s lover has a sexually transmitted disease. Thelma’s minor embarrassment is a far cry from Rachel’s sense of loss and humiliation, but Mark has other priorities. The supreme act of irony is Mark’s insistence that Rachel remain with him until their second child is born, forcing her to submit to the ultimate betrayal: to give birth to her child while the baby’s father cannot wait to leave her, to have the most intimate part of her life revealed to a man who despises her.

Rachel’s ironic assessment of male-female relationships, love, sex, food, and fidelity enables her to swallow the bitter truth that, for all of their education, intelligence, and common sense, men and women still act from the gut, not the brain. Rachel’s trick of throwing in a recipe here and there is significant because food is a metaphor for love, fidelity, and trust. The kind of potatoes that she fixes for her lovers reveals the condition of their affair—meat and potatoes when falling in love, rotted potatoes in the cupboard midway, and mashed potatoes when the affair is over. The one true thing that Rachel knows is food. As long as one follows recipes, one always gets perfect potatoes. Yet life does not provide recipes for success. Instead, people are thrown into life to be reared by amateurs in a false and threatening world where even seemingly insignificant acts may be crucial to physical or emotional survival. For example, Rachel’s not-so-subtle attempt to hide her diamond ring from a would-be mugger on...

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the subway is directly responsible for the robbery of her therapy group.

To prevent Heartburn from being merely a diatribe against faithless men who debase the women (and children) who love them, Ephron includes the story of Rachel’s former lover Richard losing his wife to another woman. Moreover, even at the lowest ebb of life’s problems, everyone is polite and mannerly—even the man who robs Rachel’s therapy group—as if to show that people may do bad things, but they are still “civilized.” The humor is so tame that it reemphasizes the absurdity of the actions and choices of her characters. Rachel never answers her question of why Mark betrayed her or why she keeps choosing men who will betray her. In that sense, some argue, nothing much happens in this novel—no significant plot, no heroic or developing characters, no resolution of problems—but it is a farce, after all, not a philosophical treatise.