There's surely never a good time to tell your wife you've fallen in love with another woman, but Mark's timing is particularly poor. Rachel is seven months pregnant with his child and running around after their toddler when she comes across an inscription in a book from Mark's lover and realises what's been going on. Maybe she could have coped if it were just an affair - it wouldn't be the first time Mark had played away from home - but he seems almost relieved to be confronted so he can share with Rachel how much in love he is. To add insult to injury Rachel knows his new woman, Thelma Rice, and her husband.
Ephron's heroine Rachel is 38 years old, a cookery writer and minor local television celebrity, and Mark is her second husband, a syndicated columnist whose witty little articles drawing on funny things that happen to him and his friends and family are featured in 109 newspapers up and down the USA. Mark goes through life stealing the experience of others and making money by writing about it in witty ways. He struck me as a man whose only claim to personality is borrowed from others. Rachel is sure that she'll wake up one morning and he'll be back knocking on the door, saying it's all been a terrible mistake and he wants her back but as the book progresses she's forced to challenge whether it's ever worth taking back a cheating husband.
Being dumped isn't all bad; Rachel's suddenly allowed to fantasise about strangers on the Underground (even ones without a college education, even ones who might turn out to be muggers) and old flames flicker out of the woodwork to stake their claims for her in the post-Mark era. On the other hand, Thelma's husband turns up to blame her for his wife's relationship with Mark and half her friends still keep coming to ask her WHO is Thelma cheating with. There's a clear sense that regardless of what's happened it must be the woman's fault - in this case the woman who's been cheated on.
My copy of 'Heartburn' is the Virago Modern Classics paperback published in 2004, more than two decades after its first release. It comes with a foreword by Ephron herself in which she comes clean and confirms what everyone already knew that whilst the book isn't entirely autobiographical, it's certainly drawing heavily on the collapse of her second marriage. There's nothing particularly novel about a story of marital collapse so why does 'Heartburn' qualify for the 'modern classic' designation? Perhaps because it's just so well written, more likely because it's a very 'real' story, but probably it helps that it's incredibly and irreverently funny about a topic which shouldn't be so. Other reviews I've seen suggest that not everyone gets the joke and many readers don't like the character of Rachel and find something uncomfortable about jilted spouses cracking jokes about their situation. Personally I thought it was laugh out loud funny in places and I can relate to humour as a weapon against distress.
What makes the book significant - and probably got it onto the Virago Modern Classics list - is that it's an empowering book about not putting up with the crap of a loveless marriage just for the sake of the kids, written at a time when that's pretty much what women were expected to do. In 1982 divorce rates were at an all time high in the USA, but still nothing like as high as they are 30 years later. At that time nice girls just didn't talk about divorce or failed relationships - as Ephron said, they were supposed to "curl up and go to Connecticut".
It's hard to imagine that Carl Bernstein (he of Watergate fame) ever lived down Ephron's description of Mark as a man who would "have sex with a Venetian blind" and his lover, Margaret Jay (James Callaghan's daughter), can't have been too happy about her friends and neighbours being told she had herpes and about repeatedly being described as much too tall but I'm willing to bet Ephron felt better for getting things off her chest.
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