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Nora Ephron is very much alive

Four decades have passed since the revenge novel in which the New York writer narrated all about her breakup with the journalist Carl Bernstein. Eleven years after her death, her work remains current and relevant

Julie & Julia
Nora Ephron during the presentation in Los Angeles of her latest film, ‘Julie & Julia,’ which premiered in 2009, when she was already (secretly) suffering from the leukemia that would cause her death in 2012.Frazer Harrison (Getty Images)

Book promotion revolves around author interviews, a practice which on one hand is dominated by the ubiquity of the most prolific ones and, on the other, pushes the dead ones into the background. Life is not fair. Especially when their work survives, resurrected or recovered outside the selective literary star system.

Such is the case of Nora Ephron, an author who keeps growing and multiplying among the roots of a Western modernity that she contributed to building and that is still robust despite the onslaught of new trends. If she were alive, we would all be fighting to interview her, to listen to her; she would fill lecture halls, and she would fill them with young people. But she is not. Ephron died in 2012 at the age of 71, too young in an era in which we can continue to revere active elders such as Alice Munro (91), Ida Vitale (99), Margaret Atwood (83), Annie Ernaux (82) or Rafael Cadenas (93).

The New York journalist, screenwriter, director and producer captivated viewers and readers with successful films like When Harry Met Sally (1989) and You’ve Got Mail (1998), period products which, nevertheless, retain the freshness of those who knew how to reflect their time. Flirting, love, heartbreak, jealousy, infidelity, insecurity, imperfection, the new forms of communication and the awakening of the American woman after decades of being a mostly frustrated housewife were her habitat, and a prelude to ours. Feminism was waging its great battles and her work breathed that hunger for liberation and equality that marked the era, but also insecurity, failure. If Richard Yates or John Cheever had depicted the contradictions of the American dream, the era of an affluent middle class that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s with as many economic possibilities as there were frustrations, Nora Ephron picked up the gauntlet primarily in the 1980s and described like nobody else what would come later. She did so in a creative symbiosis between films, essays, articles and novel that also speaks of her time, a blender in which cinema, books and the press can coincide and yield a gourmet product. That is where we come from.

Forty years have passed since the publication of Heartburn, the novel in which she barely bothers to camouflage the shattering of her relationship with Carl Bernstein (one of the two journalists of the Watergate case), and the American press has marked the anniversary with great fanfare. The Washington Post refers to it as a classic of literary revenge, of spite, a book that soon became “something bigger than the slim bagatelle it appears to be.” There have been commemorative editions, along with a revival of her essays, always current, valid. At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Vogue magazine pondered: “How would Nora Ephron handle all of this?” Her spirit is still alive, her style is missed, and her postulates are still echoed by many. Her mantra is that of her followers: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” A principle we find again in her latest books.

Amnesty International Benefit
Nora Ephron with her husband Carl Bernstein (talking to another woman), during a charity dinner in 1977 in New York. Ron Galella (Getty Images)

Using humor as a tool is her greatest lesson. Her way of telling us from the grave that if she, a successful author and portrayer of generations of modern women, full of betrayals, broken loves, impossible rents, bottles of very expensive and ineffectual creams and all the frustrations that we can accumulate without being from Burkina Faso — if she can make fun of it, we can too.

In the first of these books, I Feel Bad About My Neck, Ephron strings together the worries that come with growing old, based on seemingly frivolous, inconsequential figures, such as the moment when one begins to be surrounded by women with turtleneck sweaters. Impunity is over. The wrinkled neck, the impossible bikini, the saggy roll that forces you to reevaluate half the clothes in your closet, the ludicrously expensive face cream that we still buy, even though we know the last five we bought were completely useless. Ephron uses everything to create the perfect catalog of the imperfect time that is upon her. Upon us. There is no possible self-help, no self-deception, no escape beyond the mockery. Her intelligent and self-critical gaze, her way of speaking to the reader face to face, trapping them in their own weaknesses, is a nuanced way of narrating big from the small; to serve her experience on a platter as if we had won it in a raffle. “I can’t believe how real life never lets you down,” she wrote at one point. “I can’t understand why anyone would write fiction when what actually happens is so amazing.”

Meg Ryan and Billy Cristal in ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ with a script by Nora Ephron.
Meg Ryan and Billy Cristal in ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ with a script by Nora Ephron.Cuando Harry encontró a Sally (1989)

That is how we find out that, as a White House intern in Kennedy’s time, she must have been the only one he did not make a pass at. The mythical president must have sensed her capacity for indiscretion — or maybe it was her hideous perm. Her great heartbreak was called Bill, last name Clinton, whom she blames for not preparing the ground for Al Gore. We also know how an unbelievably devoted motherhood ― breastfeeding until the child even knows how to undo your buttons, a guilt that ends in therapy, the commitment to build perfect personalities ― clashes inevitably with adolescence, and the very law of life; because the children will become unbearable, smoke marijuana, collide with us and leave, and only years later they will look like something decent again.

The candidness and swiftness with which Nora Ephron recounts her later years in that book and, perhaps even more, in I Remember Nothing, are only comparable to the humor that she shares and her honesty when describing her own failures. The New Yorker rolls up her sleeves to portray her own decline: the loss of memory, friends, husbands and even the ability to like and enjoy, as she approaches her seventies. There is no sadness or pity when reviewing her life, only the virtue of sticking to the truth, even if it distorts us. This short, vital, funny and truthful book was her last. For many readers, it could be the first.

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