Nora Ephron is a genius at turning her personal life in to cash. In her essays, which she has collected in previous volumes, she has taken us to events and places including her college reunion, therapy group, and her amniocentesis. However, take away her individualized experiences and the essays become identical to those of every other liberal writer: she is pro-Kennedys and anti-Kissingers, proentitlements and antidefense, proabortion and anti-South Africa, pro-Betty Friedan and anti-Julie Nixon Eisenhower. And, like the congressman who recently complained that the foodstamp program is inhumane because a mother might have to deprive her child of Crackerjack, Ephron has the liberal’s bizarre attitude toward money. Rachel Samstat, television cook-philosopher and Heartburn heroine (and Ephron clone) is “poor.” But for her diamond ring, her two homes, the foreign travel, her baby’s nurse, her housekeeper, her husband, and her job, she would have nothing. (Nora Ephron has criticized William F. Buckley, Jr. for his ostentatiousness, but at least he doesn’t gaze upon his luxuries and declare himself a pauper.)
“Ephron … can be the most painfully funny two-time loser in America. … Long after the chatter has abated, Heartburn will be providing insights and laughter….the best-seller list cannot be far away.”–Time
The only one of the above items that Rachel actually loses during the course of Heartburn, Ephron’s first novel, is her husband, and he seems to be the least valuable to her. He is a newspaper columnist (those who “know” will read: Carl Bernstein) who has been having an affair with another woman throughout Rachel’s second pregnancy. Upon discovering the betrayal, she loses faith in the possibility of fidelity, the marriage crumbles, and the heartburn begins. In a sense, Heartburn is like many made-for TV movies–it is based on a media event. In this case it’s Carl Bernstein’s affair and Nora Ephron’s retaliation, which was played out before the public in the papers. Too shallow to be therapeutic and not hostile enough for revenge, the novel seems simply a means of cashing in on the publicity.
The story is a sad one played for laughs; Miss Ephron admits as much. “I’ve done what I usually do-hidden the anger, covered the pain, pretended it wasn’t there for the sake of the story,” she confesses: But that is not really accurate, for without the pain and the anger, the novel is less a story than a personal showcase, a setting that Miss Ephron seems to crave. So though divorce is imminent in this family with two baby boys, the spotlight is not on how the sons might be affected by the tragedy nor on what defect in the husband compelled his promiscuity with so much at stake. The issue is what Nora/Rachel thinks.
Never let it be said that Nora Ephron doesn’t think. She thinks about Lillian Hellman, Cambodia, her mother, her father, friends who have wronged her, her love life, and her cooking. (Rachel is an essayist who sprinkles her books with recipes, and now so is Nora) So, not surprisingly, we learn her point of view about evetything. The facts, however, remain fuzzy. Thus the author manages to be self-absorbed without being in the least introspective.
Strangely, considering the author and the times, Heartburn is not a political book. The Kissingers are mentioned, of course, and Cambodia gets a nod. To be sure, her dream man is a registered Democrat who reads The New Republic. Nevertheless, Miss Ephron (perhaps because she is not running for anything) seems to have backed away from the political realm of the liberal establishment. There are even three rather negative observations about feminism. But even if she has learned a few lessons, Ephron still fails the course. Ephron and the reader conclude Heartburn with no more understanding of the male-female relationship than they had when they began.
“‘The Feud is a comic masterpiece.”–New York Times Book Reviews
“Thomas Berger may well be America’s’ Wittiest, most elegant novelist…Seldom has so eloquent a voice been employed in the service of the comic burlesque; only Candide springs to mind.”–Village Voice
The Feud appears to be some sort of perverse stepchild to Roman or Shakespearean comedy but intellectually it is more akin to Family Feud than to Plautus. Ordinarily, Thomas Berger can reveal how the mind and emotions play against eachother with a certain a mount of wit. His gift is in depicting the way in which trilling matters grow out of proportion and take on a life of their own. He can exaggerate human idiosyncracies to the point just before the characters become ridiculous and unfamiliar. The results can be fun and sometimes important. Sadly, however, Berger’s heart does not seem to be in this novel. Whether the poor, rural, unskilled, and uneducated figures he has created here do not interest him as much as the urbane, philosophical people he has recently presented is unclear. Perhaps his style, initially so fresh, controlled, and surprising, does not wear well. Possibly his formula for success is shopworn. Even trump, after all, does not last indefinitely. Whatever the problem, this complicated and tiresome novel is nothing more than a smutty shoot-’em-up without Berger’s usual concentration, irony, and mischievous tone.
The plot is unoriginal but not necessarily hopeless. The Beelers of Hornbeck and the Bullards of Millville begin feuding over a misunderstanding that occurs in the Bullards’ hardware store. Soon the store bums down, then the Beelers’car blows up, both patriarchs are hospitalized, one dies, and, to paraphrase the politicians, pretty soon the whole thing adds up to real trouble. Naturally, but unbeknownst to the characters, the hardware store probably burned down because of the Bullard son’s carelessness, and the car bomb was planted as a prank by an unrelated third party. As it is, there is a fair amount of retribution and, since a Beeler son is infatuated with a Bullard daughter, sneaking around.
The Feud has the ambience of The Dukes of Hazzard without its brevity, and pretty soon a reader wonders what the point is. Even more monotonous is Berger’s automatic insistence upon portraying rural characters as stupid and redneck. Certainly rural areas have ignoramuses; they also have librarians and ministers. The author’s focus on the sleaziest stratum of life in the provinces causes him to miss connecting with his audience. Life is simply different from that which Berger caprures on his pages, and sometimes it is better.