Nora Ephron’s novel ‘Heartburn’ still scorches 40 years later

The book, a roman à clef about her messy breakup with Carl Bernstein, is a classic of literary revenge

Nora Ephron at the Barrymore Theater in 2002. Her novel "Heartburn" turns 40 years old in March. (Neville Elder)
7 min

Nora Ephron was a star writer, talk show habitue and media darling when magazines were everything and such a career was possible. This was in the 1960s and ’70s, when she contributed to Esquire and New York. Still, she was not yet famous-famous until 1983, when “Heartburn” happened.

Ephron’s only novel, published in March of that year, quickly became something greater than the slim bagatelle it appears to be. The book is no 179-page weakling. “Heartburn,” a swift bestseller, became tinder for gossip and news coverage, a movie, a moment. To celebrate its milestone and longevity in our culture, Vintage is publishing an anniversary paperback edition next month with a one-page intro by actor and fellow gourmand Stanley Tucci.

“Heartburn” is a comic novel, written in the first person, about cookbook author Rachel Samstat. In almost every way, Rachel resembles Ephron. It is a withering revenge novel that follows one of her most Instagramable, tote-bag-worthy dictums: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” With “Heartburn,” Ephron reaped artistic and financial hay from the heartbreak of her second marriage. Others have followed her lead ever since.

“Heartburn” is a Washington novel and a Washington Post novel: It’s based on Ephron’s explosive breakup with legendary Post Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, who had an affair with the wife of the British ambassador when Ephron was many months pregnant with her and Bernstein’s second child. References to The Post, including the Style section, are peppered throughout. “You haven’t lived till you’ve squeezed my Washington Post” is deployed as a lecherous come-on by the president’s assistant. Understandably, it fails.

To some readers, “Heartburn” is barely a novel. It’s a monologue, a diatribe, a roman à clef deployed with heat-seeking barbs.

The husband is “capable of having sex with a venetian blind.” His paramour is filleted as “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.” Ephron named her Thelma. The novel became a gastronomic touchstone. Fifteen recipes are salted throughout the novel, three alone for potatoes. Recently, they have found new life among younger fans, including extremely-online cook Alison Roman; the vinaigrette was famously Instagramed by Olivia Wilde.

The 1986 movie arrived with top talent: directed by Mike Nichols, a screenplay by Ephron, with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson as stars and music by Carly Simon. It is far less wicked, funny and urbane than the book. It lacks bite. With her hair dyed dark and sporting brown contact lenses, Streep gives a performance that is pretty much an imitation of Ephron.

The movie includes top actors in supporting roles (including Kevin Spacey as a mugger), the debut of Streep’s daughter and budding nepo toddler Mamie Gummer as Rachel’s baby, and arguably the most scenes ever featuring the Eastern Shuttle, which is as numbing to watch as it sounds.

Ultimately, Ephron would gift us with more movies, 3.5 of which are classics: “When Harry Met Sally” (directed by Rob Reiner), “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail” and the Julia portion of “Julie & Julia.”

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When “Heartburn” appeared in 1983, magazine and newspaper stories went into overdrive dissecting the media marriage and Ephron’s motivation. The novel’s reception, then as now, tended to break down along gender lines. Women adored the book. Men? Not so much.

Ephron came under scrutiny as much as the book did. Leon Wieseltier, writing in Vanity Fair under the pseudonym Tristan Vox, said her transgression was worse than her husband’s: “Here is Carl Bernstein and adultery; there is Nora Ephron and child abuse. It is no contest.”

Why did Ephron make a further mess of her marriage and regurgitate her public humiliation? “Because if I tell the story, I control the version. Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me,” she writes near the novel’s end.

The story was too good not to write. “I don’t have to make everything into a joke. I have to make everything into a story,” Rachel observes. “Writers are cannibals,” Ephron once said. “Everything is copy,” she repeatedly noted, a bon mot that became the title of son Jacob Bernstein’s tender 2016 documentary. “For my mother, ‘Heartburn’ was her central act of resilience,” he says in the movie. “For my father, it was steeped in revenge.”

A noted control freak who was hard-wired to become a director, Ephron couldn’t control public perception of her any more effectively than politicians or royal second sons.

Because of “Heartburn’s” considerable legacy — the novel, the coverage, the movie, her son’s documentary, exuberant acolytes — Ephron and Bernstein remain publicly yoked to each other, known as much for the eruption of their brief marriage as for their lengthy, seemingly happy third marriages, Ephron to journalist and “Goodfellas” and “Casino” screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi. (He is not interviewed on camera for the documentary; Bernstein is a constant.)

The divorce wasn’t inked until the mid-80s, in part because of “Heartburn”; among the roadblocks was reaching an agreement on how Bernstein and their children would be portrayed in the movie. In real life and the novel, the couple shared two sons. In the movie, they have two daughters.

“Heartburn” feasts on topical humor, much of it anchored in early-’80s culture. In some parts, the book did not age as well as its author, despite her lamentations about her neck. “Heartburn” includes references to WATS lines (ask your parents) and carb-heavy diets. Arugula was so novel it is spelled arugola. There is a recipe, I’m sorry to report, for lima beans and pears. No one will accuse the book of political correctness. My copy is penciled with ughs.

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But the book is often prescient. It breaks the fourth wall, written in a conversational manner, directly to the reader, that later became a staple of television and fiction.

Its influence is a constant among female writers, particularly those who aim toward funny. “Heartburn” was cited in a much-debated 2022 Guardian column by Isabel Kaplan titled “My boyfriend, a writer, broke up with me because I’m a writer.” It appears he was worried that Kaplan’s novel might do to him what “Heartburn” did to Bernstein.

Ephron understood what her book is and tells the reader as much. Rachel notes, of her cookbooks: “They’re very personal and chatty — they’re cookbooks in an almost incidental way. I write chapters about friends or relatives or trips or experiences, and work in the recipes peripherally.” Ephron anticipated public reaction. She writes of Rachel, “I’m the sort of person you feel strongly about one way or another.”

What “Heartburn” has in abundance is that voice: deft, assured, indelible, singular. Ephron, who grew up in Beverly Hills, a child of celebrated (and alcoholic) screenwriters, moved East to become Dorothy Parker and bested her.

Her sense of comic timing, her precision in excising every extraneous word, her infallible rhythm are what drew fans to her work. Ephron had no gift for the tragic. When I met her in 2006, she would have none of it even though she was promoting a book titled “I Feel Bad About My Neck.”

When she died six years later, I wrote: “She was, by all accounts, a great and generous friend, a fabulous cook, hostess, and guest. Again, there was that appetite for life. Ephron only complained to make a point, to be funny and, as it turns out, to turn a profit.”

She knew precisely who she was and how best to express that self. This was her purpose. Readers adored her because she appeared impervious to insecurity and doubt. Ephron owned her story, then and now. Life gives you a car wreck of a breakup. Here, enjoy my novel. The three potato recipes are gratis.

Karen Heller is national features writer for Style.


By Nora Ephron

Vintage. 179 pp. $17

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