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Nora Ephron 1941–
American journalist, essayist, novelist, scriptwriter, and editor.
Ephron is a commentator on popular culture who brings a fresh, iconoclastic approach to such contemporary topics as the feminist movement, the pains and absurdities of personal relationships, politics, journalism, Jewishness, and the New York vs. Washington mentality. She is not afraid to include herself in her wry observations and critics have praised her work for its frankness.
Ephron's first three books, A Wallflower at the Orgy (1970), Crazy Salad (1975), and Scribble, Scribble (1978), are collections of articles she wrote as a columnist for Esquire and New York magazine. These collections have drawn favorable critical commentary for her ironic view of contemporary life and are considered refreshingly humorous and enjoyable. Heartburn (1983), Ephron's first novel, describes her own experiences in the final days of her marriage to Carl Bernstein, a well-known journalist and author. The novel has received mixed critical appraisal. Some critics appreciate Ephron's candid, humorous portrayal of the dissolution of a marriage; others, however, find the novelistic aspects underdeveloped. Ephron's work with Alice Arden as coscriptwriter for the film Silkwood (1983) has also received some negative comment. Specifically, critics have accused them of taking an inordinate amount of literary license with a story purported to be factual.
(See also CLC, Vol. 17; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 12.)
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[It's] a fairly pointless exercise to keep substituting real people and events for what goes on in the course of "Heartburn." After all, even the most scrupulous attempts to reproduce reality in prose always end up being violent distortions of the actual. And to compare Miss Ephron's story with reality, far from enhancing its effectiveness, is likely to distance the reader from the novel's modest virtues as a work of the imagination.
Besides, the major question that "Heartburn" raises really transcends the issue of the novel's resemblance to living people and events. That question is why any woman, real or imaginary, would attach herself and then reattach herself to a man who could cheat on her compulsively when she was carrying his child, then lie to her about it and promise to stop and then continue cheating on her when she was foolish enough to believe him. Obviously, there is something emotionally disturbed about this relationship, and it behooves Miss Ephron, whether the story she tells is real or imaginary, to try to get to the bottom of the characters involved.
For a while, she fends off the question with wit and comedy, and we collaborate happily in the evasion by laughing….
But about two-thirds of the way through "Heartburn," the gags and apothegms begin to pall. The comedy routines begin to seem less sprightly. And the plotting begins to seem farfetched. I think the reason for this is that we really want Rachel to arrive somewhere beyond merely getting mad at her husband for mistreating her. We really want her to achieve a glimmer of self-understanding.
Rachel blames everything in sight for her dogged desire to hold on to her husband. She blames love, fear of loneliness, sentimentality, romance and the impossibility of her ever getting anyone better. "Let's face it," she complains to her therapist: "everyone is the one person on earth you shouldn't get involved with." Ultimately, she arrives at a theory that the reason she alienated her husband is that she got too involved with cooking. "I love to cook, so I cooked. And then the cooking became a way of saying I love you. And then the cooking became the easy way of saying I love you. And then the cooking became the only way of saying I love you. I was so busy perfecting the peach pie that I wasn't paying attention."…
One suspects that Rachel is right, that for her cooking did become a screen. But what it was hiding never does get revealed—to the detriment of what might have been an amusing dark little comedy.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in a review of "Heartburn," in The New York Times, April 8, 1983, p. 25.
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A pity Nora Ephron is so famous. A pity the grubby details of her divorce from muckraker Carl Bernstein have been trumpeted in the magazines and savored by millions in the Safeway checkout line. Full disclosure may be the great desideratum of journalism, but it threatens to distort appreciation of Ephron's surprisingly touching first novel ["Heartburn"].
For the first questions in many minds will be, where does she get her nerve? How could she publish a roman so shamelessly a clef, exposing the warts, peccadilloes and worse of her family, ex-husbands and friends?…
Fans of Ephron's articles have come to expect no less. For years she has written brazenly in the first person, letting fly some of the niftiest ad hominem barbs since Dorothy Parker. What is curious—and effective—is that in the present book her lance seems a bit blunted. Wit gives way to rueful wisdom; bitter jokes misfire; sentences ache with labor. "Heartburn," as its title announces, is about pain: Ephron's own. Camouflage and polish are less urgent than exorcism. (p. 2)
Is "Heartburn" a good novel? It is innocent, to be sure, of literary pretensions, resembling in style an endless but entertaining phone call from a college roommate not heard from in years. Rachel the narrator frequently intrudes on her story, not only to offer digressive anecdotes or observations—which are any novelist's glorious birthright, and Ephron's forte—but to apologize to the reader for, among other things, the thinness of plot or the use of cliches. Such amateurish insecurity can of course be dumped off on "Rachel," a cookbook writer attempting a first novel, who is not the author but the author's invention. Lit professors and coy novelists will tell you it is a dangerous mistake to confuse author and narrator. Here, such a caveat is laughable, and Ephron of course knows it. It is impossible to separate this novel from its own publicity….
"Heartburn" contains more than a dozen recipes, ranging from linguini alla cecca to four-minute eggs, inserted almost randomly in the bittersweet confessional, as if to call time out and say: If you can't stand my kvetching—funny as I've tried to make it—I know you'll love my cooking….
Few writers would have had the gall to write "Heartburn." Its genesis invites tongue-clucking, and that is too bad. For what makes this display of whining and dining so likable is precisely its disarming vulnerability—as honest as a belch at L'Orangerie. (p. 10)
Stuart Schoffman, "Marriage and Ephrontery: A New Woman Strikes Back," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 17, 1983, pp. 2, 10.
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Heartburn is Ephron's first novel, and she was obviously nervous that her domestic tragedy would not translate well into comedy. She is eager to please, and her book begins with a flurry of extraneous characters, funny routines, useful aphorisms ("If pregnancy were a book, they would cut the last two chapters"). But as the writing settles down, Ephron succumbs to the tug of her own story. By the end, Heartburn is not just witty but ruefully honest and sad, as befits a novel about a family breaking up.
For a roman à clef about betrayal, her book is remarkably free of malice, cynicism or even bitterness. Rachel remains a hopeless, marriage-loving optimist, quick to trust and slow to learn….
The more Ephron risks losing the quick laugh, the more satisfying the humor in Heartburn becomes.
Marni Jackson, "A Witty Woman's Revenge," in Maclean's Magazine, Vol. 96, No. 19, May 9, 1983, p. 62.
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The most publicized aspect of Heartburn—the resemblance of the book's action and characters to those of Nora Ephron's life—is the least important thing about it: Novelists have always plundered their own and their friends' and enemies' lives, and art has no more obligation to be fair than life has. But a novelist does have an obligation to write a novel. Ephron could be taking as her model here the relentlessly note-taking writer in Randall Jarrell's Pictures From an Institution, who thinks "the novelist's greatest temptation is to create." In Heartburn she has simply regurgitated the contents of her diary onto the printed page without giving them any substance or grace. Yet, flimsy as Heartburn is, it's interesting as an example of a certain kind of women's fiction, the rather wan and stunted child of feminism, free love, and psychoanalysis.
In the past several months I've seen an increasing number of novels by young women in which the heroine is supposed to interest us not because of what she does but because of the awful things men do to her….
These put-upon ladies moon and whine their way through their sufferings or, worst of all, toss off incessant wisecracks that are meant to show off their spunk but only display their masochistic tendency to turn their strongest feelings into cute little jokes….
Rachel Samstat, the cookbook writer of Heartburn …, certainly deserves anyone's sympathy—she discovers, while seven months pregnant with her second child, that her husband is having an affair….
Ephron has been widely praised for her wit, but the gag lines in Heartburn don't express more than a formula flippancy, a perky hostility….
In Heartburn, as in other novels whose heroines have been battered by feminism and the sexual revolution, there's a half-formed anger about the state of the relations between men and women. The old, cute games won't work, but the women, not knowing what else to do, just go on playing them without any conviction. These women might make amusing minor characters, but as heroines they flounder around too much, alternately wistful and sour, dragging the books down with them. (p. 78)
Rachel keeps skittering away from what her story is ostensibly about—we never learn why Rachel and her husband got married, what their life together is like, why and how the affair began. Yet she whips up such contrived and irrelevant bits as the unbelievable robbery of her therapy group and the scene in which a drunken friend loudly proposes to her in Central Park and then falls into the sea-lion pool (if I can't believe that one, I have seen it; it's the climax of every third comedy about wonderfully wacky people in love).
While Heartburn solicits our sympathy, it's told in a very dictatorial way: Actions are stated rather than dramatized, characters are labeled rather than portrayed. Every image has been predigested for us—it's a monologue by a Venus's-flytrap. Her husband's analyst, Rachel tells us, "looks like Carmen Miranda," and she later calls the woman "that refried taco" and "Chiquita Banana." Ephron never shows us the analyst so that we can judge whether she's as foolish as Rachel thinks…. Like every therapy patient, Ephron has learned that if you keep talking you reveal the other person's side of the story; hence, she just clams up. Reading this novel is like walking through that art exhibit of the future Tom Wolfe imagined in The Painted Word: all captions and no pictures.
By the end of this self-serving monologue, you may feel that you're in the position of the analyst whom Rachel pays to be fascinated….
Writing Heartburn must have been emotionally satisfying for Ephron, and reading it may be the same for women similarly placed. But books like this have nothing to do with art, or even entertainment. Nimble and breezy, Heartburn can be wolfed down without any effort, but the satisfaction it offers is no more than you get from any convenience food. (p. 81)
Rhoda Koenig, "Yakety Yak (Don't Talk Back)," in New York Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 19, May 9, 1983, pp. 78, 81.
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Novelists have been drawing from their own lives since time immemorial…. But nobody has been quite as inspired by her own drama as Nora Ephron in her first novel, Heartburn …, which is as witty and malicious and personal as her journalism. In her widely read collected essays, Crazy Salad and Scribble, Scribble, Ephron revealed everything from her obsession with having small breasts to the secrets of her consciousness-raising "sisters." What makes her novel equally titillating (to people who care and even to some who don't) is that the story seems to be a thinly veiled version of the last weeks of Ephron's publicized marriage to reporter Carl Bernstein….
Does drawing so brutally from one's own life make a novel less artful? Less worthy of being taken seriously? This may make it more documentary, less transcendent, but it still can be an entertaining read. Ephron presumably has improved on the boring parts, left out (one hopes) the really gruesome stuff and along the way striven for significance. Heartburn is dazzlingly well written. It has a nice plot, it moves swiftly and gracefully to its conclusion, and you can't put it down. And when the going gets tough, the story is punctuated with terrific recipes….
What is best about Heartburn, with its wit and sparkle and genuine belief in fidelity, is the characters. They move in and out of situations worthy of a Marx brothers farce crossed with Steve Martin, Woody Allen and Elaine May…. Everybody in Heartburn is organically loony, and most are dealing with betrayals. They all deal with betrayal ineffectually, manically, pathetically, but how else can you deal with betrayal? (p. 124)
In her fiction, Ephron has documented a marriage in such a way that she has received an enormous amount of media attention. But when she writes about what it's like to have a baby wrenched from her womb, knowing her husband is in love with another woman, she rises above her vengeful phrases, her devastating asides … and touches a powerful human and moral level.
She's not only as vulnerable as everybody else, she has been hurt deeply. Humiliation and hurt more than dreams of celebrity and success, which she already had, compelled her to write about her "double-digit … terminal heartburn" so fiercely and so well. She should feel cleansed. (p. 126)
Patricia Bosworth, "Dazzling Double Takes from a Marriage," in Working Woman, Vol. 8, No. 6, June, 1983, pp. 124, 126.
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'Heartburn' appears in England in a truncated form, and turns out to be nothing more surprising than 'Rhoda meets Henry Kissinger' (or, rather, she doesn't: he stays in the wings). Nicely written, funny in a sassy, downbeat, disabused way, about such well-known subjects as Jewish mothers, shrinks, group therapy, mugging, it shares the basic assumptions of such humour: everyone will recognise such things, everyone is basically the same. When you're single, Rachel Samstat tells us, 'you meet new men, you travel alone, you learn new tricks, you read Trollope, you try sushi, you buy nightgowns, you shave your legs.' Suppose you didn't do any of these things? You might become an individual, not a class-member, and that's where true novels used to begin.
Frank Tuohy, "Mediatized Offerings," in The Observer, August 7, 1983, p. 25.∗
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One rather imagines that the people who undertook [the task of relating Karen Silkwood's story in the film] Silkwood may now wish they had waited until later. For rarely has the desperation to square inspirational myth with provable, nonlibelous reportage been more apparent. And rarely has the failure to do so been more dismaying. All they can say without fear of litigious contradiction is that there were obvious defects in the way plutonium was handled in the Crescent, Okla., plant that employed Karen Silkwood; that this woman, whom they cannot show as anything but neurotically self-centered and very messy both in her private life and in her relationship with peers and superiors at work, for reasons of her own decided to take a leading role in her union's campaign to remedy these defects; that thereafter she began to suffer from radioactive contamination, which may have been caused by someone in the company, but could possibly have been self-induced; that on the night of Nov. 13, 1974, she lost control of her car and crashed into a wall (the only concrete object in this case) with instantly fatal results.
What they cannot say, however, is whether the working conditions under protest were the result of deliberate policy or middle-management bungling of an unmalicious kind. Nor can they identify a moment when Silkwood made a conscious commitment to a coherent program of opposition to the status quo, which would, naturally, have included a knowing (and thus heroic) acceptance of the risks she might possibly be taking. Shorn of the ability to make direct statements on these matters, the film, in its climactic accident, is robbed of its capacity either to instruct or to move. Unable to prove a corporate conspiracy against Silkwood, or even individual violence by someone whose job was threatened by investigations, the movie must content itself with showing, without comment, mysterious headlights appearing behind her car just before the crash. And then admit, on a concluding title card, that an autopsy revealed a large amount of tranquilizers as well as a small amount of alcohol in the system of this demonstrably unstable woman. This is the most significant set of contradictory implications in a movie that is a tissue of them. And they leave the viewer about where he began, free to consult his own paranoia, or lack of it, for an interpretation of her life and death.
If Silkwood aspired merely to documentary honesty, this approach would be entirely honorable, perhaps even praiseworthy. But it will not do for a film that feels a powerful obligation to politicized mythmaking and must, in any case, try to involve the audience at a more intense and immediate dramatic, emotional and intellectual level. The strategy, therefore, is to treat the particulars of its heroine's political activities and her death almost as irrelevancies. The important thing, we are supposed to believe, is that Silkwood somehow redeemed an inconsequential life, a life the film makers are at pains to treat disdainfully, by a miraculous, inexplicable focusing of her energies on a significant issue of social conscience in its final months. Again, this is not an interpretation proved by any of the facts the film can set forth….
There is none of the affectionate respect for working-class life and values that marked the similar, and far superior, Norma Rae, nor any of that film's sense of felt reality either. One senses that [director Mike] Nichols and his colleagues [Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen] are reporting on a sociological field trip, that they made no instinctive emotional connections with Silkwood's milieu….
The facts [the film] can lay its hands on do not support a politically alarming or dramatically compelling conclusion to the mysteries of this case. Nor do they lead to a very uplifting statement about the motives and character of its central figure. On the other hand, the passage of time has not yet burnished away the ambiguities surrounding this affair, which might have permitted a purely mythic, Gandhi-like approach. In short, the moviemakers are backed into a corner from which neither showbiz sophistry nor a resort to the kind of radical-chic attitudes Nichols has always favored, nor yet a hundred hymns, can life them.
Richard Schickel, "A Tissue of Implications," in Time, Vol. 122, No. 26, December 19, 1983, p. 73.
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[Dissatisfactions with Silkwood go past a number of problematical] matters of execution, bothersome as they are. The script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen is a compound of compromise, alteration, and misleading implication—all serious matters in what purports to be a true story. (p. 24)
I am not remotely competent to sift all the evidence in this matter, but as far as I can make out, no irrefutable proof of murder or document theft has yet been produced although much time has been spent in trying to provide that proof. But this ambiguity has not deterred Ephron and Arlen—and of course Nichols and his producers—from implying heavily that Silkwood had incriminating evidence in the car and that another car came up behind hers on the road and forced her off. (In the film's worst sequence, Silkwood is "canonized" at the end….) Also, some published accounts indicate that facts about Silkwood's private life have been altered to make her more popularly acceptable and that her experiences in the plant, with safety practices and with radiation tests, have been nudged a bit one way and another.
All these changes verge on the unethical, the deliberately misleading. E. L. Doctorow altered facts in the Rosenberg case for his novel The Book of Daniel, but he made no claim to be presenting that case factually. Quite the contrary: he was using elements of that case as he needed them for a work of art about the large themes involved. No such rationale applies in Silkwood. The film was made with the clear intent to tell us the truth about a conspiratorial crime, and it apparently does not. (pp. 24-5)
Part of the fact manipulation comes, I think, not so much from social or political sympathies as from dramaturgic need, the need to make a cogent script out of a life that is hard to organize dramatically. The end of Silkwood's life is shocking, but in the life itself it's difficult to clarify themes without leaning on facts. The film does indeed show her growing awareness of her social situation and its connection with the physical condition caused by her job, but this is not the same as making her something akin to a labor Joan of Arc.
One truth, however, the film does helpfully drive home: middle-class America is a middle-class myth. By millions of filmgoers, America is usually seen as a coast-to-coast suburb, each cozy house with multiple color TV sets and with offspring in college. Silkwood is about proletarians who live from paycheck to paycheck and who are vulnerable to brutalization much more direct than that of wall-to-wall-carpeted offices. The characters in Silkwood are just on the edge of the people we don't see off-screen, whom they may join from time to time, those people who—according to a plump and double-chinned White House spokesman—don't exist: the hungry. Silkwood flubs its main intent, but this side effect is salutary. (p. 25)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Death and Transfiguration," in The New Republic, Vol. 190, No. 3, January 23, 1984, pp. 24-5.
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