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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

The title Heartburn represents more than simply Rachel Samstat’s constant digestive distress during a pregnancy that seems unrelenting and endless. The word also symbolizes the emotional pain that Rachel feels upon learning of her husband’s cold-blooded betrayal and his attitude of righteous indignation that she should have the nerve to resent his love affair with Thelma Rice. Nora Ephron’s novel is not simply a comic story about pregnancy, nor is it merely a cookbook: It is a novel concerning male-female relationships, truth, betrayal, guilt, self-pity, and one woman’s romance with food.

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The work is an ironic look at modern married life in the 1970’s. Rachel Samstat and Mark Feldman are typical of upper-middle-class professionals who have no more control over their emotions than the average man or woman. Ephron is careful to reveal Rachel’s pain in tiny bits, like the pepper and spices added to a good sauce, while simmering the whole question of love and betrayal, men and women, over a low but steady flame of outrageous comedy.

The narrator begins with a joke, her initial reaction to her husband’s infidelity: that “the most unfair thing” about it is that she “can’t even date.” She then discusses Mark’s character and her own, their relationship, and her cooking, trying to uncover the key to his betrayal and the reason that she keeps falling for men who cheat on her and lie about it, and badly. First she thinks that he is crazy, and then she blames his mother, her mother, and the “other woman,” Thelma. Finally Rachel leaves Washington, D.C., to go to New York City, staying in her father’s apartment and rejoining her therapy group led by Vera Maxwell.

There are flashbacks revealing details of her romance and marriage to Mark, the significance of food in their lives, and her self-doubt, which reveals a pattern of choosing men who will betray her. Yet even in the depths of anger and pain, Rachel finds the humorous side to everything—she even suspects that Mark wants her to come back to him only so that he can find out the secret to her vinaigrette recipe. She is not far wrong, since Mark no longer loves her, treats her terribly, and only wants her to stay with him until the baby is born, for the sake of his own reputation.

Rachel’s response to a crisis is either to laugh it off as one more humorous spectacle in a cruel world or to remember a particularly good recipe for sorrel soup or Key lime pie that allows her to forget the pain. Even when her therapy group is robbed at gunpoint and she must surrender the diamond ring that Mark gave her on the birth of their first child, Rachel wonders if the police officer who interviews her might be available for a date. Yet her attempts to understand men and her relationships with them are typical of the reactions of most women. People always wonder why she picked Mark, and Charlie before him, when in fact she (and other women) have made no conscious choice.

Throughout this episodic farce, the irony of Rachel’s life reverberates in her self-mockery, her choice to be a “good girl” and return to Mark as expected, and even her willingness to give Mark the salad dressing recipe despite her gut instinct to keep it from him as punishment for his cruelty. Rachel survives and in that sense triumphs, with her good humor and sense of self intact.

Context

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Like Ephron’s other books, which comment upon and poke parodic thrusts at the cogent issues and major figures of American popular culture of the 1970’s, Heartburn allows the reader to share the writer’s pungent wit directed at the battle of the sexes and love, sex, and food. Ephron ironically analyzes the contemporary scene from the perspective of a woman who is a feminist but who is also the first to admit her own weakness for emotionally abusive, faithless men. On the way, she examines psychotherapy, muggings, and modern technology.

Unlike some of the leading voices of women’s liberation in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Ephron has a sense of humor and is willing to shoulder some of the blame for sexism in the United States. Rather than attempting to destroy the psyches and personas of her adversaries (Bernstein and his lover), Ephron is content to suggest that the unhappy ending of her marriage is more the fault of her obsession with food and with getting the last laugh than with any evil intent on their part. Heartburn is relatively free of malice, but it contains quite a bit of self-directed and self-imposed sarcasm and cynicism. The book has its temporary bouts with looniness, but at its core is a profound sadness about male-female relationships and their failures. This amusing, frisky, and rarely bitter farce may make Ephron’s reputation as a comedic writer, but it has had little impact on serious women’s issues.

In Wallflower at the Orgy (1970), a fun-filled but acerbic collection of interviews and analytical essays about major icons of popular culture, Ephron shows her wit, vitality, and penchant for pop-culture commentary and ego deflation. Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (1975) explores the same biting but ironic truths about modern life and the polarity of the sexes, as Ephron attempts to deal with romance, the cultural fixation with large breasts, feminine hygiene, and sexism. Her book Scribble, Scribble: Notes on the Media (1978) is a collection of her critical commentaries and her parodies of the news media, her uncle the television carpet salesman, Gourmet magazine, and Palm Beach society.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 331

Bosworth, Patricia. “Dazzling Double Takes from a Marriage.” Working Woman 8 (June, 1983): 124-126. A review of Heartburn which calls Ephron’s work “witty and malicious.” Speculates on the possibility that the story documents Ephron’s own much-publicized marriage to and divorce from Carl Bernstein, famed Watergate investigative reporter who also publicly flaunted his affair with another woman while his wife was pregnant with their child. Bosworth also claims that the recipes in the novel are quite good.

Hoffman, Barbara. “Non-Fiction: Crazy Salad.” Best Sellers 35 (September, 1975): 171. Compares Crazy Salad to comic writer Jean Kerr’s Penny Candy (1970), and gives Ephron credit for going beyond wit to find truth even behind the myth of feminism.

Jackson, Marni. “A Witty Woman’s Revenge.” Maclean’s 96 (May 9, 1983): 62. This article calls Ephron’s novel a roman à clef about her betrayal by Bernstein, yet asserts that Ephron refuses to show much malice, which is commendable under the circumstances.

Kent, Rosemary. “Nora Ephron’s Heartburn.” Harper’s Bazaar 116 (May, 1983): 30, 40. A very complimentary analysis of Heartburn that reveals the true identities of its leading characters while praising Ephron’s use of “laughter as her best (antacid) medicine” for marital heartburn. Carl Bernstein’s real-life affair was with Margaret Jay, daughter of former Prime Minister James Callaghan and wife of former British Ambassador Peter Jay. Rachel’s therapist is based on Dr. Mildred Newman, the coauthor of How to Be Your Own Best Friend (1971).

Koenig, Rhoda. “Yakety Yak (Don’t Talk Back).” New York 16 (May 9, 1983): 78-81. Koenig dismisses the confessional strategy of Heartburn as lacking substantive content or graceful style, and she calls the novel flippant and hostile. Also argues that Ephron’s plotting is unbelievable and that she dictates character traits rather than showing them in the actions of the characters.

Kriegel, Harriet. “Books: Crazy Salad.” Commonweal 103 (June 18, 1976): 412-413. Complains about Ephron’s belief that beautiful or big-breasted women have no right to complain about America’s sexist society. Kriegel is disturbed by what she calls Ephron’s “feminine self-hatred.”

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