High Maintenance

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Reviewed by Bunny Crumpacker
Sunday, August 20, 2006

I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK

And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

By Nora Ephron

Knopf. 137 pp. $19.95

Nora Ephron is funny. She has the credentials to prove it: 12 screenplays, including three nominated for Academy Awards; Heartburn, the story (with recipes) of the disintegration of her second marriage; and five collections of essays.

I Feel Bad About My Neck, her newest collection, is subtitled "And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman," though it might more accurately be called "A Measure of One Woman's Life." A certain melancholy pervades the humor here. The book opens with the title essay about aging and concludes with a rumination about death called "Considering the Alternative." Between are essays about books treasured along the way, thoughts "On Maintenance" (bodily upkeep), the stages of parenting, a timeline of beloved cookbooks, cabbage strudel, her love affair with an apartment and "The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less."

There's more, but basically this is a kind of retrospective -- wry and amusing, as you'd expect, but also a bit strained and sad. It's a condensation of a life graced with privilege, which can make empathizing with Ephron a bit difficult. We all end up too aware of our own deterioration, but we don't all have our hair done twice a week or have our unwanted facial fuzz "threaded" by a woman who uses "a fantastic and thrilling method of hair removal she had learned in Russia." Then there are the three hours every six weeks spent having "four tiny, virtually invisible blondish streaks" added to her hair (which has already had the gray covered over), the weekly manicures and regular pedicures, and vast amounts of skin cream and bath oil. It's all brave (and funny) to talk about -- but odd, because if you've spent all that time and money trying to look younger and better, doesn't it make more sense not to tell anybody you've done it so they can think you just naturally look young and good? And then there's the time and the money. As far as money is concerned, she's earned it, no question about that -- but the specifics of what she's writing about, here and in other essays in the collection, are much less than universal. There are worlds where having your facial hair regularly threaded is as affordable as the judicious use of a pair of tweezers, but that choice is a luxury many women don't have.

Most women will love the essay about her purse. She may "feel bad" about her neck, but she "hates" her purse. She's writing here for women "who understand that their purses are reflections of negligent housekeeping, hopeless disorganization, a chronic inability to throw anything away" and who aren't wildly successful at changing -- at the right time -- from a winter purse to a summer one. Her list of permanent purse contents includes loose Tic-Tacs, lipsticks with no covers, leaky ballpoint pens and crumpled tissues that might have been used but equally well might not have been -- who can tell?

There's a lot of interesting advice in a chapter called "What I Wish I'd Known." She tells us that "the last four years of psychoanalysis are a waste of money," but she doesn't say how you know when the last four years begin. I like "If the shoe doesn't fit in the shoe store, it's never going to fit": So many things could be substituted for shoes in exactly the same sense. She tells us that "The plane is not going to crash," but later she notes "Overinsure everything." The essay's last words: "There are no secrets."

"The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less" is a marvelous compilation of high and low points and moments of great clarity and learning. Under "What my mother said," there is "Everything is copy." This is a lesson the daughter learned well, as her ex-husbands would agree.

Despite the elegiac tone of this collection, it would be nice to think that we'll have Nora Ephron around for a long time. She's always good for an amusing line, a wry smile, and sometimes an abashed grin of recognition as she homes in on one of our own dubious obsessions.

"Goodbye" may be her final word in this uneven book, but with any luck, it'll turn out that she doesn't mean it. ยท

Bunny Crumpacker is the author of "The Sex Life of Food: When Body and Soul Meet to Eat."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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