Read To Win

Nora Ephron’s ‘Heartburn’ shows how to be funny about the break-up of the perfect relationship

Continuing our series on readers’ choices of books that have moved them.

I first read Nora Ephron’s Heartburn a few months after she died in 2012. I’d have never noticed the paperback, tucked away in the cookery section of a typically chaotic bookstore in Kolkata, had not the memory of a beautiful obituary by her son, Jacob Bernstein, been fresh in my mind.

Until then, I hadn’t read Ephron in print. She was, to me, a writer of movies that I did not seem to care about as much as my friends thought I should. Sleepless in Seattle and Julie & Julia had reminded me, uncannily, of my own life. I was a little younger than eight-year-old Jonah in Sleepless in Seattle, when I lost my mother. I could sense what he went through.

And like Julie, in Julie & Julia, I was obsessed with cooking, though, as I would discover after reading Heartburn, it was really my “way of saying I love you” than expressing other, perhaps worthier, ambitions. But I was put off by Ephron’s Disneyfied romantic comedy (much as I adored Meryl Streep – who doesn’t?), her chocolatey endings, and the lack of sharpness in her plots. So I turned up my nose, passed up a chance to watch Heartburn, and returned to Woody Allen for my laughs.

But that evening in Kolkata, I looked at the baby-pink cover, fell in love with the illustration of a ring dangling from a dented fork, read the opening sentence of the blurb (“Is it possible to write a sidesplitting novel about the breakup of the perfect marriage?”), and took it home.

Funnily, or rather fittingly, as with most of my Ephron experiences, it proved to be the right moment to be reading the book.

I was recovering at the time, at my own snail-like pace, from a hideously imperfect love affair, a mistake so colossal that the thought of it now brings back to mind an immortal one-liner by Rachel Samstat, Ephron’s protagonist: “I felt like a character in a trashy novel.”

Rachel had found herself in Rona Jaffe’s scandalous potboiler, The Best of Everything. I would have probably put myself in one of those obscure French novels, where the hero feels existential angst crawling up his toes as he contemplates a boiled egg at breakfast, is always shrouded in a haze of cigarette smoke, and walks the dingy lanes of Paris eyeing the women of the night. I was nearly living this life – except for the last bit, of course.

To my credit, I was also busy turning my suffering into a big joke. From close friends to my therapist, anyone interested in my well-being was subjected to the full, vitriolic blast of my self-deprecating humour. This was just as well, as my therapist told me after two weeks of patiently sitting through what were effectively hour-long stand-up comedy shows, except that my performances were untouched by even a trace of kindness towards myself. Until I had read Rachel’s story, I did not quite get what she was trying to tell me.

Heartburn is narrated by 38-year-old Rachel Samstat, seven months pregnant with her second child, when she finds out her husband, Mark Feldman, is having an affair with the “giantess”, Thelma Rice.

The Ladies’ Central of Washington, which includes Rachel, had been hotly speculating whom Thelma is sleeping with all summer, so the knowledge, when it hits Rachel, is devastating at multiple levels.

In shock, she flies off with her two-year-old son, Sam, to New York, to stay at her father’s empty apartment, the old man “having been carted off to the loony bin” by her sister Eleanor. We gradually learn about the father’s third wife, who happens to be Rachel’s “former best friend Brenda’s sister”; her mother, a Hollywood agent who specialised in midgets; and her hamster-obsessed first husband, Charlie, who caught crabs by sleeping with – well, once again – Rachel’s “former best friend”.

Heartburn is based on Ephron’s relationship with her second husband Carl Bernstein (one half of the team that exposed the Watergate scandal), whose affair with Margaret Jay, the daughter of former British Prime Minister James Callaghan and the wife of former British ambassador Peter Jay, ended their marriage. Ephron’s first husband, Dan Greenburg, is not spared either. And least of all, Ephron herself.

She lacerated her own neuroses, sliced away at self-pity, mocked herself for not leaving her philandering husband fast enough – but without forgetting to delight in the absurd, to seek pleasure in the most ordinary activities (such as making the best mashed potatoes or four-minute eggs) and to see everyone, including herself, as being shaped by, and reacting (nearly always irrationally) to, circumstances that are (nearly always) beyond their control. I had been also shaming myself for my folly, cooking Mac ’n Cheese for supper way too often, but without gracing myself with the wisdom of self-forgiveness.

In spite of the neurotic edge to Ephron’s prose and Rachel’s dithering misery, Heartburn tells a story of heroism, not victimhood.

If its sarcasm slips into cynicism (“Show me a woman who cries when trees lose their leaves in autumn and I’ll show you a real asshole”), it also asks us to seek meaning in the maddening medley thrown at us by life. In his memorial, Jacob Bernstein remembered his grandmother Phoebe on her deathbed telling his mother to “take notes”. Ephron followed her instruction precisely, making every detail of her life grist to her mill, be it her love of food or psychoanalysis.

If therapy shows up the fragility of the choices available to us (“…the truth is that no matter who you pick, your neuroses mesh perfectly and horribly; the truth is that no matter whom you pick, he deprives you the way your mother and father did,” goes one of Rachel’s most inspired diatribes), food, with its reliably predictable taste, should it be made a certain way, provides a counter-ammunition to this nihilism. The latter is captured, quite literally, at the end of the novel, as Rachel hurls her Key lime pie at Mark at a dinner party, days before she finally leaves him.

Somak Ghoshal is an editor and writer based in New Delhi. His writings have appeared in The Telegraph, Biblio, Mint, Caravan, Open and Huffington Post

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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

Watch Big Little Lies Now

4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.