The blurb for Heartburn poses an interesting question: “Is it possible to write a side-splitting novel about the breakup of the perfect marriage?” It would appear that the answer is yes – as long as you’re queen of the ’90s rom-com, Nora Ephron.

Heartburn - Nora Ephron - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Heartburn is an autobiographical novel about heartbreak, food, marriage, sex, pregnancy, Judaism, therapy, and anger – and it’s only 178 pages long. Ephron based the novel on her marriage to and divorce from her second husband, Carl Berstein. You can thank your lucky stars every day that you’re not Carl – he fucked around, and Ephron made sure that he found out.

If I had to sum up the vibe, I’d say Heartburn is like Julie & Julia meets Olivia Rodrigo’s Get Him Back. The main character, Rachel (Ephron’s avatar), is a Jewish food writer from New York, transplanted to Washington D.C. to support her husband’s career as a political journalist. When the story starts, they have one child and another on the way – and that’s the moment he chooses to kick off an affair, with glamorous socialite Thelma Rice.

Rachel’s first response is to spread a rumour on the Washington grapevine that Thelma has a venereal disease. Good for her!

Her second, once it becomes clear that her husband has no intention of wrapping up the affair and getting on with their lives together, is to take the kid and the bun in the oven and run back to New York. She goes back to group therapy, she reflects on her favourite recipes, she flirts with the idea of finding a new lover. Her behaviour is a little unhinged but, honestly, who could blame her?

Reading Heartburn, I instantly recognised some iconic Ephron lines that made their way into her film (one of my favourites) When Harry Met Sally. “Pesto is the quiche of the seventies,” for instance, and “What did she look like? / Thin. Pretty. Big tits. Your basic nightmare.” I respect that Ephron clearly knew when she’d struck gold and had no compunction about recycling content.

It’s impossible to separate Heartburn from Ephron’s real-life experience of being cheated on while heavily pregnant – and she wouldn’t want us to. It’s an explicit act of literary revenge, catharsis through thinly-veiled fiction. The fact that she doesn’t try to hide it or deny it is what makes it work.

One of the things I’m proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is.

Nora Ephron on Heartburn

As good as Heartburn is, though, I can concede that Ephron’s novels weren’t her strongest work. Her comedy and insight into the human condition translates best on the big screen, in classic screenplays like the aforementioned When Harry Met Sally (and, indeed, the adaptation of Heartburn itself). Ephron didn’t write another novel after Heartburn, and while nothing she could have written could have possibly been bad, I’m glad she directed her energies to where they were most needed and appreciated.

This is definitely the best novel to buy for your bestie who’s going through a bad break-up; either they’ll find it hilariously relatable, or it will simply remind them that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and, someday, they’ll look back on it all and laugh.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Heartburn:

  • “This book is TERRIBLE! The main character rolls around in self pity while trying to cook the weirdest things.” – Big Mama
  • “I read about 50 pages before deciding to put myself out of this books misery.” – R. Peterson
  • “Waste of time. All about her divorce, a real downer.” – Swissneva
  • “Lots of whining, with recipes.” T. B.
  • “Back then it was like ‘wow’ she really wrote this? Reading it now, it is embarrassing and not politically correct. The book doesn’t hold up over the years. Kind of like Nora Ephron’s neck.” J. C.