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Heartburn is an autobiographical novel based on Nora Ephron's life story about her marriage to and divorce from Carl Bernstein, her second husband. Originally published in 1983, the novel largely focuses on his affair with Margaret Jay, the daughter of former British Prime Minister James Callaghan. 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 food writer who is married to Mark Feldman, a political journalist. Rachel is a Jewish New Yorker who has moved to Washington, D.C., 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 replete with neuroses—Rachel is in group therapy, Mark agonizes over where his socks go. Threaded through the whole are recipes and anecdotes which drive the story along and humanize our heroine. In a New Yorker piece on novels that include recipes, Adam Gopnik writes, "in Heartburn, the recipes serve both as a joke about what a food writer writing a novel would write and as a joke on novel-writing itself by someone who anticipates that she will not be treated as a 'real' novelist." 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" jeweler to get it fixed. Here she discovers that while she had been in the 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 realizes 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.
- "Unfaithfully Yours: Adultery in America", People August 18, 1986, Vol. 26 No. 7. Retrieved 27 June 2012
- "The Art of the Novel as Cookbook", by Marialisa Calta, New York Times February 17, 1993. Retrieved March 22, 2016
- "Cooked Books: Real Food from Fictional Recipes", by Adam Gopnik, New Yorker April 9, 2007. Retrieved March 22, 2016