On Monday, I contemplated placing orders online for some dystopian fictions and thrillers that were written about a pandemic. I changed my mind. Seriously do I want to read literature that communicate something akin to what we are experiencing? As it is, the situation feels unnerving and disorienting. Perhaps one day I may get round to reading The End of October by Lawrence Wright that was released last April and it looks like a fiction that reads more like a non-fiction as it is well researched. Anyway for now I will stick to other genres. So I read Heart Burn by Nora Ephron and Weather by Jenny Offill. In times like this , I miss feel good rom-coms such as You’ve got mail, When Harry Met Sally, screenplays written or co-written by Ephron when she was alive.
Heart Burn is Nora Ephron’sroman-à-clef based on her marriage and divorce from her second husband, Carl Bernstein in real life.
In Ephron’s words,
‘ In the book, I thinly disguised myself by making myself considerably more composed than I was at the time’
In the story, Rachel Samstat, aged 38, a food writer is married to Mark Feldman who is a political journalist. When she is seven months pregnant, expecting their second child, she finds out about her husband’s affair with Thelma Rice. On discovering about the affair, she leaves Washington with their toddler, Sam, takes the shuttle to New York and stays in her father’s apartment . Then Mark comes to New York and tells her that he wants her to go home.
The story is narrated in Rachel’s voice.
‘ “I’m not coming home if you’re going to see her anymore,”I said.
“ I’m not going to see her anymore,” he said. ‘
Mark starts to cry and Rachel cannot believe it because in her narration ‘if anyone was entitled to cry in this scene, it was going to be me; but the man had run off with my part.’
‘ There has been a lot written in recent years about the fact that men don’t cry enough. Crying is thought to be a desirable thing, a sign of a mature male sensibility, and it is generally believed that when little boys are taught that it is unmanly to cry, they grow up unable to deal with pain and grief and disappointment and feelings in general. I would like to say two things about this. The first is that I have always believed that crying is a highly overrated activity : women do entirely too much of it, and the last thing we ought to want is for it to become a universal excess. The second thing I want to say is this : beware of men who cry. It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.’
Rachel .goes back with him only to find out that he has not broken up with Thelma. After giving birth to their second child, she plans to leave Mark. When she is in the hospital, Marvin, her obstetrician asks her if she believes love. She says she does.
Here is Rachel’s take about love.
‘ Sometimes I believe that love dies but hope springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that hope dies but love springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals love, and sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals good sex. 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.’
Rachel ends the marriage when they are at a friend’s place for dinner and they happen to be talking about one of their common friend’s marriage . It dawns on her that she cannot pretend it is okay even though she is terrified of being alone, she will just rather not sit and try to figure out how to get him to love her again. Kudos to her.
Rachel was once asked by her friend Vera about why she had to turn everything into a story.
In her narration,
‘ 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.’
Heart Burn is a bittersweet story. Ephron’s second marriage ended exactly the way the one in Heartburn does but most of the characters and many of the things in Heartburn are entirely fictional, some of the things happened to her friends and more importantly she was never a food writer. In Heart Burn, Rachel offers us some of her favourite recipes.
Nora Ephron, the screen writer for Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry met Sally died in 2012 at the age of Seventy-one. I would love to watch these films again.
In Weather by Jenny Offill, Lizzy Benson is a librarian, married with Ben and they have a son named Eli. She was Sylvia’s grad student and Sylvia pulled some strings to get her the library job even though she does not have a proper degree for it. Sylvia pays her to answer her email and to travel with her to keep track of things when she goes to conferences. Sylvia wants to set up a foundation to ‘rewild half the earth‘. They have dinner with people from Silicon Valley. Some of them are donors for her podcast. But these men are more interested in current technology, de-extinction and genetic-engineering. The young techno-optimist guy who is seated next to Lizzy opines that when all those who are unnerved by the current technology are no longer around, there will only be talk of what has been gained. Lizzy says to him,
‘But wait , that sounds bad to me. Doesn’t that mean if we end up somewhere we don’t want to be, we can’t retrace our steps? ‘
The young guy ignores her utterance and goes on to list all the ways he and his kind have changed the world and will change the world. In Lizzy’s narration,
‘ He tells me that smart houses are coming,that soon everything in our lives will be hooked up to the internet of things, blah,blah,blah, and we will be connected through social media to every other person in the world. He asks me what my favoured platforms are.
I explain that I don’t use any of them because they make me feel too squirrelly. Or not exactly squirrelly, more like a rat who can’t stop pushing a lever.
He looks at me and I can see him calculating all the large and small ways I am trying to prevent the future. ” Well, good luck with that , I guess,” he says.
Sylvia says, ‘These people long for immortality but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee‘.
As the story progresses, we know that Sylvia is losing heart in her project trying to tell the mass that humans are nothing particular special and we should give more regards to the other creatures on earth.
Aside from worrying about climate change, Lizzy also worries about her former drug addict brother, Henry and her mother. Lizzy just had her birthday. Though she is feeling existentialist blues but it is not all despair as she has family members whom she cares for.
Lizzy has a good sense of humour.Those who come to the library include an adjunct who has been working on his dissertation for eleven years and she has to spend time pulling books for him and then gives him reams of copy paper, binder clips and pens, ‘the man in the shabby suit who does not want his fines lowered‘ because he is pleased to contribute to the institution, ‘ the blond girl whose nails are bitten to the quick stops by after lunch and leaves with a purse full of toilet paper’ and there is the lonely heart engineer.
Here is an anecdote about her work day at the library on campus. In her words,
‘I brave a theory about vaccinations and another about late capitalism. ” Do you ever wish you were thirty again?”asks the lonely heart engineer. “No, never,” I say. I tell him that old joke about going backward.
We don’t serve time travelers here.
A time traveler walks into the bar.‘
Sylvia calls her. Lizzie talks about the mystics to her mentor.
‘ ” Of course, the world continues to end,” Sylvia says, then gets off the phone to water her garden.’
Offill’s avant-garde style of writing reflects with wry humour on how we live through the musings and narratives of Lizzy Benson about her fears for climate change and contradictions . Interesting style of writing. Though the narrations are fragmented, they effectively tell about contemporary life in the present world setting. Insightful and thought-provoking.