Nora Ephron Ephron, Nora (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Stuart Schoffman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Marni Jackson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Rhoda Koenig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patricia Bosworth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Frank Tuohy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'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.∗

Richard Schickel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 505 words.)