[17 January 2014]
When Nora Ephron passed away in 2012 at the age of 71, she left behind an oeuvre that includes newspaper articles, plays, blogs, screenplays, personal essays and novels. If there was a medium in which she could express herself through words, then she was on it. Perhaps the devastating illness she kept secret from the press was one of the reasons why she never had the opportunity to flourish on Twitter. Her legacy can be seen in the way in which modern female writers like Tina Fey and Lena Dunham (who befriended her near the end of her life) express their opinions about the world, not to mention how it’s impossible to go to a restaurant and not say the phrase, “I’ll have what she’s having”, which appears in her wonderful screenplay for When Harry Met Sally….
Even if she mostly proved to be an author who drew from her own life experience to help inspire her work, Ephron had a warm quality that allowed us to discover ourselves in stories in which she talked about her divorce or her aging process. Upon her unexpected death we found ourselves noticing that she left behind a void that would be practically impossible to fill. Her work, like her life, seemed so effortless that it wasn’t until we knew that there would be no new Nora Ephron literature, ever that we desperately craved for more of her charming wisdom.
Knopf has put together a marvelous anthology containing practically everything written by Ephron, from her essays to her novel to her blogs. The anthology is divided into chapters that acknowledge the many hats she wore during her career; the journalist, the profiler, the novelist, the foodie, the playwright… and it should feel surprising to realize that while her voice was always friendly, she took on each of these enterprises with different stylistic approaches.
Her journalism shows a matter of factness that feels funny only because we know about her future work in comedy, “some years ago the man I am married to to told me he had always had a mad desire to go to an orgy” she begins in “Introduction to Wallflower at the Orgy”, before she goes into an explanation of how she realized she wanted to become a journalist and how different her personal experience was from the ideas she had about what the work required, “what separates me from what I write about is, I suspect, a sense of the absurd that makes it difficult for me to take many things terribly seriously.” She explains that she doesn’t believe in objectivity before stating with utmost confidence that “I always have an opinion about the orgy; I’m just not down on the floor with the rest of the bodies.”
In piece after piece in the chapter on “Journalism”, Ephron displays a passion for life that seems obviously deflated once we reach her autobiographical novel Heartburn (reading her work chronologically makes for an altogether more fulfilling, if also more heartbreaking, experience) in which the character meant to be her, explains her need to turn everything into stories. “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” she explains. Ephron’s lovely prose makes it altogether more disappointing that the movie version starring Meryl Streep felt like such a convoluted, lifeless affair.
As we reach her blogging era we find ourselves in the presence of a writer who knew how to differentiate between the urgency of print journalism and the laid back, more informal nature of blogging. In “Deep Throat and Me: Now It Can Be Told, and Not for the First Time Either” she pokes fun at herself by saying “indiscretion” is her middle name. She explains how she knew the identity of a key figure who changed American contemporary history, and she does it while subtly highlighting her intelligence while also teasing other people’s creativity, when someone told her journalist Bob Woodward invented Deep Throat she explained that “Bob Woodward would never have invented anything, much less a composite character” with a tongue-in-cheekness that’s more adorable than arrogant.
Perhaps the only truly problematic item in this anthology is her play, “Lucky Guy”, which feels incomplete and was put on stage on Broadway in 2013 but obviously lacked a few rewrites and tune ups. It’s not that the play is bad, for the story of tragic columnist Mike McAlary is certainly worth telling, but that seen in retrospect, it already feels elegiac, as if in writing it, Ephron was trying to make sense of her own legacy and what she would leave behind. The feeling of incompleteness in the play, which fails to construct completely believable characters, should be a reminder that this was a woman who was taken from us way too soon.