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Heartburn is an autobiographical novel based on Nora Ephron's life story about her second marriage to Carl Bernstein. Originally published in 1983, the novel largely focuses on his affair with Margaret Jay. Ephron also wrote the screenplay for the film based on the novel starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.
The novel is a vivid depiction of the breakdown of a marriage. Its strong autobiographical content provides insight into one of the 'power couples' of the late 1970s. It is Nora Ephron's first published novel but in it she mentions subjects that she would go on to feature in future work such as When Harry Met Sally and Julie & Julia.
The narrator of the novel is Rachel Samstat, a Jewish cookery writer who is married to Mark Feldman, a political journalist. Rachel is a New Yorker who has moved to Washington DC to support her husband's career. They have one son and Rachel is pregnant with their second child as the book begins. The book wittily describes the life of an upper middle class intellectual couple complete with neuroses—Rachel is in Group Therapy, Mark agonises over where his socks go. Threaded through the whole are recipes and anecdotes which drive the story along and humanise our heroine. Rachel's self-esteem takes a huge battering as Mark has an affair with Thelma Rice (Margaret Jay) and she takes her revenge by telling the Washington grapevine that Thelma has a venereal disease. A diamond ring that is stolen from Rachel when she is at Group Therapy is pivotal to the plot. Remarkably she gets it back when the police catch the robber. The stone is loose in its setting and she takes it back to the 'family' jeweller to get it fixed. Here she discovers that whilst she had been in hospital giving birth, Mark had bought an expensive necklace for Thelma. She sells the ring and the money will enable her to go back to New York and start afresh.
One of the last scenes in the book—and the subsequent movie—is Rachel's special way of telling Mark that the marriage is truly over. They are at a dinner with friends and Rachel has brought along a homemade key lime pie. Gossiping about other Washington couples whose marriages are in trouble she realises that people don't really change, Mark has cheated before Thelma and he will likely do so again. She cannot face the idea of staying with Mark knowing he does not truly love and respect her. If he doesn't love her then she will simply have to throw the pie in his face. The logic is clear and instant—like a lightning bolt of clarity. Rachel gets the pie from the kitchen and throws it in Mark's face.