A Novel by Nora Ephron

“’Tis the season to be jolly.” It’s also the season to miss people. Nora Ephron is someone to be missed. She could make us laugh at our necks, and at almost anything. Her novel, Heartburn (a barely fictionalized account of the end of her marriage), even manages to make us laugh at divorce. Why does she turn a sad, disturbing, and enraging reality into funny? 

Divorce isn’t a laughing matter. For Rachel Samstat, Heartburn’s betrayed wife, it’s certainly not funny that her husband’s having an affair with a woman who just came to dinner and asked for her carrot cake recipe. Especially when not suspecting anything remotely of the kind, she willingly gives the recipe to her. A laugh can be a good thing. Yet when you laugh you might be avoiding tears. Rachel cries and fights it.  Her therapist tells us bluntly: “She makes jokes even when she feels terrible.

Francine Prose’s review of The Most of Nora Ephron (2013) in the November 21, 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books raises insightful questions about the use of humor in Heartburn:

What is lost when a fictional character’s pain is instantly dissipated by a joke? If we can’t feel sorry for Rachel, we run the risk of not feeling anything at all. We understand that she has been wounded by her husband’s infidelity. But the speed with which Ephron throws her heroine the life preserver of a wicked retort may suggest that what has been sacrificed is not merely plausibility, but emotional truth.

The Emotional Travails of Divorce in Heartburn

Prose is right. As readers, we’re neither allowed to feel or learn a thing or two about the emotional travails of divorce. But, although Heartburn is a roman a clef of sorts, it’s not Nora Ephron’s whole story. In her 2010 essay The D Word (HuffPost, March 8, 2010), Ephron admits to all the feelings Heartburn’s heroine avoids:

It’s a very funny book, but it wasn’t funny at the time. I was insane with grief. My heart was broken. I was terrified about what was going to happen to my children and me. And I felt gas-lighted and idiotic, completely mortified. … angry and hurt and shocked … I survived. My religion is Get Over It. I turned it into a rollicking story … wrote a novel …bought a house with the money from the novel.

Ephron had some pretty painful feelings. But what is this pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps “Get Over It” philosophy meant to accomplish? She’s avoiding pity. Yes, she’d rather we laugh at her than pity her. Does she think we’d see her as just as “idiotic” as she sees herself? There wasn’t anything shameful about what happened to her. It wasn’t her fault. But maybe she doesn’t trust that most people would empathize and not judge her.

How to “Get Over It” Using Anger Creatively

Because of Ephron’s inimitable use of humor, I’m not sure she meant “Get Over It” as coldly as it sounds. But, as a psychoanalyst, I must say that the “Get Over It” philosophy is too harsh a condemnation of the feelings involved in a divorce. Hurt, anger, terror, and grief are normal. What these feelings really need is not to be quickly dismissed, but given time and a place to be felt, spoken about openly, understood, and resolved. Especially anger. If someone is too afraid to direct the anger where it really belongs, they’re very likely left with terrible and undeserved self-indictments.

Rachel Samset’s method of laughing off her feelings, or being all too self-sacrificing instead of angry, could leave a woman stuck in a mire of self-hatred and self-blame. Yet, I can’t put Nora Ephron in that category. Writing this delightfully tongue-in-cheek novel exposing her husband’s infidelity in all its reprehensible colors had to be a most satisfying bit of revenge. Better yet, isn’t Heartburn a creative use of anger that actually might have freed her?

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at sandracohenphd@gmail.com to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.