I wouldn’t have discovered Nora Ephron’s Heartburn if the awesome folks at The Bookshop, Jor Bagh Market, hadn’t recommended it. At this point, after reading a bunch of books recommended by them, I knew that I might end up liking Heartburn as well, although the book’s rating on Goodreads doesn’t reflect my sentiment.
I quite liked Rachel Samstat. She was 38, a food writer, 7 months pregnant with her second child, and her second marriage was crumbling. She had moved into her father’s apartment to get a respite from her husband’s adultery, and the book started…
I was in New York, staying in my father’s apartment, I was crying most of the time, and every time I stopped crying I had to look at my father’s incredibly depressing walnut furniture and slate-gray lamps, which made me start crying again.
The book was published in 1983, and the story unfolded in the 70’s. Rachel had no social media then to casually follow her husband’s digital footprints, and to unwillingly learn that she was being betrayed. It had to happen the old-school way. She had to rummage in the socks drawer, run through the telephone bills, and look for inscriptions on the books gifted to her husband by his friends. Even after discovering that she was being cheated, Rachel related her story with the distance that a raconteur takes while narrating a funny anecdote, and her story still felt intimate.
Everybody in her life was funny. Perhaps, it’s just the way Rachel saw them, choosing to see what she thought was the chief aspect of their personalities. Her mother had a near death experience, and ran away with a man who believed he was God. Her father married her best friend’s sister. Her first husband froze his dead hamster, stored him in their own freezer, and offered a tiny bouquet to his deceased hamster-friend every day. One of her friends proposed her, jumped into a seal pond, and the seals followed him into the pond in horror to reclaim their habitat. They all made hilarious cameos in her story. In between, she dropped recipes to make some of her favourite delicacies. They appeared at random junctures, but she was that person whose life was built on the love for cooking, and who could express her love articulately through food, and even if she were moaning about her breakup, she was kind enough to get distracted, and shared recipes. She even shared one of her delightful essays titled Potatoes and Love: Some Reflections, and the next time when I eat mashed potatoes, I will think of Rachel.
Once in a while, Rachel addressed the reader, and assured that the story had a plot, but it was weak. It still worked for me though. If a book started with the central character being pregnant, one could predict how it would end. Although her narration seemed like she was rambling, it seemed warm, funny, and soulful. I caught myself laughing out loud quite a few times, and that’s saying something. I usually don’t laugh when I read funny books. The laughter usually rings in the head, and it dies there. Rachel made it audible.
When Rachel made the final decision, she sounded very unlike Rachel. Her ability to see the funny side of things disappeared. She seemed world-wearied, broken, exhausted, and maybe, she should have felt all of that a long while ago, and if she had, the book would have ended up sounding like another jilted person’s side of the story. It still was, in some way, perhaps. In her story, the husband was totally at fault, and while she questioned her contribution to the collapse, she was relieved by the betrayal.
That’s the catch about betrayal, of course: that it feels good, that there’s something immensely pleasurable about moving from a complicated relationship which involves minor atrocities on both sides to a nice, neat, simple one where one person has done something so horrible and unforgivable that the other person is immediately absolved of all the low-grade sins of sloth, envy, gluttony, avarice and I forget the other three.
At the end, Rachel justified her proclivity to turn everything into a story and a joke. I bought her view, and that also made her totally unreliable. What was she telling me in the first place? But it didn’t matter anymore.
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.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.
I must admit that Rachel’s sense of humour was not clean. It was replete with stereotypes about gender, and race, and some of her jokes reminded me of what the standup comedians dish out as jokes these days. I found myself stopping, and wondering if people laughed about such mean things forty years ago, and I squirmed in the thought that people still do. I wished some personal growth for Rachel.
Perhaps, if Ephron were alive, she might have written a sequel, and I would have still bought that book. I might not necessarily care about Rachel, but I am curious about her life. I liked the way she made me laugh when her jokes were politically correct, and when it stemmed from bewilderment, surprise, revenge, and resignation. I liked her more for she hadn’t lost hope. Also, there must be a TV show on this book.
Sometimes I believe that love is as natural as the tides, and sometimes I believe that love is an act of will. Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it. Sometimes I believe that love is essential, and sometimes I believe that the only reason love is essential is that otherwise you spend all your time looking for it.