The Ultimate Revenge Novel – The Atlantic


In the 40 years since Heartburn was published, there have been two distinct ways to read it. Nora Ephron’s 1983 novel is narrated by a food writer, Rachel Samstat, who discovers that her esteemed journalist husband is having an affair with Thelma Rice, “a fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs, never mind her feet, which are sort of splayed.” Taken at face value, the book is a triumphant satire—of love; of Washington, D.C.; of therapy; of pompous columnists; of the kind of men who consider themselves exemplary partners but who leave their wives, seven months pregnant and with a toddler in tow, to navigate an airport while they idly buy magazines. (Putting aside infidelity for a moment, that was the part where I personally believed that Rachel’s marriage was past saving.)

Unfortunately, the people being satirized had some objections, which leads us to the second way to read Heartburn: as historical fact distorted through a vengeful lens, all the more salient for its smudges. Ephron, like Rachel, had indeed been married to a high-profile Washington journalist, the Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein. Bernstein, like Rachel’s husband—whom Ephron named Mark Feldman in what many guessed was an allusion to the real identity of Deep Throat—had indeed had an affair with a tall person (and a future Labour peer), Margaret Jay. Ephron, like Rachel, was heavily pregnant when she discovered the affair. And yet, in writing about what had happened to her, Ephron was cast as the villain by a media ecosystem outraged that someone dared to spill the secrets of its own, even as it dug up everyone else’s.

The pushback was inevitably personal. “There are also those who say that Heartburn, though funny and sad, is a great misuse of talent, a book whose only point is to nail Carl Bernstein,” New York’s Jesse Kornbluth observed. Writing under the pseudonym Tristan Vox (possibly a play on the Latin for “sorrowful voice”) in Vanity Fair in 1985, the literary critic Leon Wieseltier huffed so tempestuously about the proposed movie adaptation of Heartburn that one can only assume he passed out midway. Ephron, he insisted, had written “one of the most indecent exploitations of celebrity in recent memory.” To be unfaithful to one’s pregnant wife, he concluded, was “banal compared with the infidelity of a mother toward her children,” and if Bernstein had committed adultery, Ephron, by exposing her family to strangers with only the lightest of fictional glosses, was committing “child abuse.”

I’m a few months younger than Heartburn; I grew up amid the wreckage of a similarly busted marriage and contentious divorce. And I’ve come to think of the book over the years as something more than a juicy revenge novel or an infinitely pleasurable roman à clef. Arriving in the tail winds of the fast-and-loose 1970s, it made, amid the jokes, a sincere point about infidelity: that it wasn’t banal at all but could in fact be an irrevocable cleaving open of one’s life, one’s heart, one’s sense of home and stability and self. More radically, Heartburn also emphatically rejected the idea that infidelity was something women—or men, given the portrayal of Thelma’s husband—should have to tacitly endure.

This argument, I think, was what led to such vigorous denunciations of the book (and the movie) from certain quarters. It was too iconoclastic, too righteous. After all, excavating one’s romantic life for the sake of art and a paycheck wasn’t particularly original: In an 2004 introduction to Heartburn, Ephron wrote, “Philip Roth and John Updike picked away at the carcasses of their early marriages in book after book, but to the best of my knowledge they were never hit with the ‘thinly disguised’ thing.” Rather, the collective outrage over the novel was an attempt to wrest the narrative away from Ephron, who, some parties complained, wasn’t being fair with it. Bernstein reportedly threatened to sue; he also requested explicit provisions in their custody agreement that would give him sway over how he might be portrayed in the film.

His reaction, Ephron noted in the 2004 introduction, was “one of the most fascinating things to me about the whole episode: he cheated on me, and then got to behave as if he was the one who had been wronged because I wrote about it!” And yet, it’s undeniable that Heartburn achieved what she wanted it to: It cast the story of her marriage definitively in her terms. This is the power a gifted writer can wield. Is it fair? Not necessarily. But it’s also a power that, as Ephron accurately discerns, is almost exclusively critiqued when it’s exercised by women. Late last year, the internet erupted over an essay by the writer Isabel Kaplan about a boyfriend who had broken up with her because he was threatened by her job. “The more I share about our relationship and breakup, the more vindicated he will feel in his fears,” Kaplan wrote, citing Ephron as an example. “But if I don’t write about it, he succeeds in forcing my silence.”

That tension runs through Heartburn too. But to take the novel on its own terms for a moment, it is a wholly joyful read, a 178-page stand-up routine about marriage that’s entirely one-sided and openly so. Mark, Rachel’s husband, is introduced as a man who’s both immediately unfaithful and vividly humorless, prone to perusing home-design magazines in bed, forgetting to clean his nails, and lying about books he’s read. Thelma, apart from being tall, makes “gluey puddings.” (Rachel, a food writer, is doubly betrayed when she realizes that during the affair, she gave Thelma one of her recipes.) Rachel also skewers her parents—like Ephron’s, both alcoholics who got rich by investing in Tampax stock—her therapist, Mark’s “dumb Hemingway style he always reserved for his slice-of-life columns,” and sensitive types who express themselves through poetry. (“Show me a woman who cries when the trees lose their leaves in autumn,” Rachel observes in one chapter, “and I’ll show you a real asshole.”)

Some critics have raised stylistic objections to the novel, particularly its structural looseness—wherein Rachel recounts a few weeks of her life while thinking insistently about food—that was perhaps ahead of its time. More often, though, Heartburn’s detractors focused exclusively on Ephron’s supposed sin of betrayal. The movie, Mark Harris notes in his biography of its director, Mike Nichols, was subsequently dismissed as a trifling “woman’s picture” with “the tunnel-vision point of view of the offended party.” And yet, for the past four decades, people have pressed it into one another’s hands, as a friend pressed it into mine. They have read it and shared it and read it again. They’ve found something thrilling and metamorphic in the way that Ephron, by putting her pain on the page, transforms it into comedy. “If I tell the story, I control the version,” Rachel explains at the end of the novel. “If I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.” Heartburn, you may conclude, is ultimately less about revenge than about self-preservation.

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